Real Madras Handkerchief
A cotton cloth patterned with colourful plaid checks, Real Madras Handkerchiefs (RMHK) are woven with dyed yarn and popularly used in the West. The name is derived from its colonial export centre, the city of Madras (now Chennai, Tamil Nadu) and its surrounding areas, whereas the fabric itself was produced by weavers on the coasts of south India in the towns of Kurinjipadi, Chirala, Nagapattinam, Ami, Gummidipundi, Saidapet, Perala and Sullurpet. While it is today known by colonial-era names such as “Bleeding Madras” and “George cloth,” RMHK cloth has been traded with West Africa since the sixteenth century and was possibly used locally in lungis and turbans for even longer. The fabric’s many names are a result of its popularity in various markets over time. RMHK is often mistakenly conflated with other plain weave cotton fabrics such as Telia Rumal and Guinea cloth, but these involve a different method of weaving and lack the plaid design particular to RMHK cloth.
This fabric was generally patterned with checks in yellows, blues, greens and reds. The favoured dyes used were indigo and turmeric, as these would produce green when combined. RMHK was woven while the yarn was still wet with dye: colours combined during the process and the fibres expanded to their full extent only after the fabric dried, making the weave extremely compact and colourful with a great economy of dyes used. Colonial merchants in the nineteenth century added the word “Real” to the Madras Handkerchief’s name to distinguish the handwoven cloth from imitations made in Europe. Made on an early power loom, these imitations did not attract customers who were habituated to the feel, strength and high density of the original fabric.
One of the oldest and largest markets for RMHK cloth before British rule were the Kalabari and Igbo peoples in present-day Nigeria, who have used it as a garment since the 1500s and refer to it as “Injiri” and “George cloth” respectively. This connection was established by Portuguese slave traders, who bartered the cloth for slaves to send to the Americas. Production further grew during the British colonial period, especially after the introduction of the fly-shuttle loom. At the peak of its popularity, the cloth was typically eight yards long and two and a half yards wide. The more coarse bolts of fabric were used as lungis and turbans among the local population, and later also by migrants from Burma (now Myanmar) and Southeast Asia who began arriving in India in the nineteenth century. The relatively finer and softer fabric was exported. In Britain, these were first brought in as bales of fabric to minimise taxation, then cut into squares as handkerchiefs and sold. Beginning in the 1950s, the fabric was exported to the US as Bleeding Madras, since the variety sent there had a tendency to bleed colour between its checks so that the cloth appeared to have a new design with each wash. These were intended to be washed rarely, offering the user a sense of novelty in addition to increasing durability.
Since the 1990s, the spread of more sophisticated power looms, changing fashion trends, and slowing demand for the cloth in Nigeria and other parts of Africa have significantly impacted RMHK production. Very few weavers continue to produce the cloth, and none do so through the traditional handloom method. Today, the chequered RMHK pattern is reproduced on a variety of contemporary garments but this is rarely done by dyeing the threads or replicating other aspects of the original process.
“A Chequered History.” The Hindu, March 15, 2018. https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/real-madras-handkerchief-and-the-histroy-arround-it/article23260390.ece.
Anantharam, Chitra Deepa. “Yards of History.” The Hindu, March 21, 2018. https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/real-madras-handkerchief-and-the-textiles-of-tamil-nadu/article23311188.ece.
Radhakrishnan, Sabita. “Madras Checks.” Madras Musings, February 1, 2016. http://www.madrasmusings.com/vol-25-no-20/madras-checks/.
Roy, Tirthankar. “Madras handkerchiefs in the interwar period.” The Indian Economic & Social History Review, 39, no 2-3, 2002: 285–300. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F001946460203900208.
Saju, M. T. “Remember the Old Real Madras Handkerchief?” The Times of India, March 12, 2018. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/remember-the-old-real-madras-handkerchief/articleshow/63273180.cms.
Sampath, Janani, Chennai, and Praveena Parthiban. “How Madras Lost Its Textile Legacy in Checks.” The Federal, August 23, 2019. https://thefederal.com/states/south/tamil-nadu/how-madras-lost-its-textile-legacy-in-checks/.