Saturday, May 30, 2015

Pre-1700 Printed Cottons

Notes: I use the word “cottons” to refer to cotton-blend fabrics as well as pure cotton fabrics. I apologize in advance for my monotonous use of the phrase “printed cottons,” but “calico” referred in the period to both printed fabrics and white goods, while “chintz” suggests to me a complex design of many colors and some of the early fabrics used only one or two colors. 

My citing system is simple: (Source as numbered in the Bibliography, page number)


Cotton Production

1673 illustration of a cotton plant - Library at The Mariners' Museum

Cheap cottons, including printed textiles had been available to Europe since the Roman Empire via Arab and Levantine traders (8, 33).

European cotton production began in Spain after its introduction by the Moors. By the 9th century the Spanish were producing cotton textiles. It wasn't until around 1150 AD that cotton weaving spread to Italy where fustian, a cloth with a linen warp and cotton weft began to be produced. This primarily cheap cloth was exported to Spain, France, Northern Europe and beyond until the mid 14th century when competition from Switzerland and southern Germany increased. In 1320 Ulm, Germany was a center of cotton production (12, 73) and by the early 1400s southern Germany in general became dominant in producing cotton-blend fabrics. Cheap German cottons flooded into Spain, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands, deterring local cotton industries. (10.2, 75)

By the late 14th and 15th centuries, some parts of France and Flanders had developed cotton industries. Most of Europe was hampered by a lack of raw cotton, which did not grow well there (12, 49). Southern Italy and western Mediterranean regions grew a type of short-staple cotton which was generally used in the more rural areas, while Syrian, Egyptian and Cypriot cotton was in demand in larger towns. (16, 315)

Trade with India and the Levant

India, who had long traded to central Asia, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, began trade with newcomer Portugal after Vasco de Gama discovered a sea route to India. The Portuguese began to import indigo among other exotic products. Until East India Companies (EICs) were formed by the English and the Dutch in 1600 and 1602 respectively, most of Europe was only peripherally linked to Asian trade (12, 35). Despite this, enough indigo was flowing through Europe to prompt Germany to ban indigo in 1577 to protect domestic woad-growers (woad being a plant which also produced blue dye. France followed suit in 1609. The tide was impossible to stem; 500,000 pounds of indigo entered Amsterdam in 1631 alone (6, 31). In the early 1600s, Spain required Central American Indians to pay taxes in the form of indigo; first collected in the wild and later grown on plantations to the tune of nearly half a million pounds a year (C., para. 8).

Prior to Europe's direct trade with India, Asian products were available in the Mediterranean via overland routes through Persia and the Levant. Fragments of Indian printed cottons from between ca. 1000 to 1450 AD found in Egypt reside in the Ashmolean Museum. The range of trade in Indian cottons was vast, even seven centuries before our period of interest. Venetians had been trading with the Levant since at least the 1370s, and before them, the Genoese had traded there (18, 115). The French had been trading in the east Mediterranean since at least 1400 AD (18, 146) and an English chartered company, the Levant Company, was formed in 1581 (B, para. 1&2). In the region, Persian and Levantine fabrics were sold along with Indian cottons. In the early 1600s, Levantine fabrics were being marketed in Marseilles, London, and Flanders (12, 112).

One of the early imports by the Portuguese were “pintados”, which means “spotteds” in Portuguese (9, 9). These were cotton textiles printed or painted with bright, fast colors. Lisbon merchants traded these pintados “as far as southern England before 1550” (10.3, 212). These printed fabrics eventually came to be known by other names: chintz (chints, chittes) and calico (calacow).

In 1609, EIC agent William Finch wrote home to England that they might be able to sell “pintadoes of all sorts”, and by 1613 both fine and coarse pintados were available in London (9, 14), though they don't appear to have been imported by the EIC until 1631 (7, 157). These early printed fabric imports were generally used for furnishing purposes: as bed covers, hangings, etc. They were celebrated for their bright colors and fastness, which enabled them to be laundered, as well as their exotic style. It seems that at this point, printed cottons were not generally viewed as clothing fabrics. This may have been due to the fact that many of the cloths imported were palampores, pieces as large as 8.5 x 11.5 feet whose pattern included a wide border around the edge and a large central motif such as the “tree of life.”

The majority of the fabric imported by the English EIC in the 1630s was plain, checked or striped cotton; only one-fourth was painted or printed. (9, 11). The Dutch imported Indian cottons as well, but the majority of their trade in cloth was intra-Asian as a means to acquire spices and other luxury goods (as Indian cloth was used as currency in Southeast Asia). Since the Dutch were already dominant in this market, the English EIC came to focus on exporting textiles back to Europe. (12, 91-2) All European buyers tended to eschew the cheapest types of cloth which were worn by working people in India and Southeast Asia (10.1, 33).

In 1662, the English EIC began to send “musters” or designs to be copied in India for a more saleable product (9, 15). By the mid-1660s cottons accounted for approximately three quarters of the English EIC imports by value, increasing to 83% in the mid-1680s which represented 1.5 million pieces of fabric (13.1, 86). Though all of the EIC's were importing large amounts of Indian cottons, much of it was reexported (11, 110) to other European countries, to Africa, and to their American colonies.

Throughout the 17th century, material niceties and fashion trends spread even to the rural areas of England where people could now afford small luxuries like buttons, ribbons or lace (10.3, 221). In the 1670s, printed cottons began to be used as clothing fabrics in England and Holland; however, a quote from 1683 explains that only “the meaner sort” were wearing them in Britain (13.1, 91). After some promotion and strategic importation of very fine textiles, it was reported in 1687 that “ladies of the greatest quality” were wearing printed cottons (9, 16) and in 1694 the English EIC wrote to one of their agents in India that “you can never make or send us too many of them.” (9, 18)

European Printing

As the demand for printed cottons increased, many entrepreneurial Europeans began to try to reproduce the brightly-colored fabrics. The first efforts used familiar technology, such as copperplate printing which was already used for books and sometimes souvenir silk handkerchiefs. The earliest efforts seem to have used existing pigments and inks (which were not fast) and did not utilize the methods for printing mordants on fabric. Karel Davids says in <u>The Rise and Decline of Dutch Technological Leadership</u> that textile printing began “in the Dutch Republic from at least the 1610s onwards” and that print works decorated camlets and linen using copperplates and ink and oil paint. It wasn't until the 1670s however, that the Dutch printers began to use mordants and dye (pp. 156-157). In many ways, European printers were reinventing the wheel because information on Indian printing processes was fragmentary and hands-on training was almost required to learn the trade. France received a bit of a head start when Armenian printers settled in Marseilles in the 1660s, bringing with them their know-how. (8, 37)

The first known printer in England was William Sherwin in 1676 whose patent claimed “A way for printing broad calicoes and Scotch cloth with a double-necked rolling press [copperplate press] which is the only true way of East Indian printing and staining goods.” (7, 65) In Holland in 1678, printers were already achieving up to 8 colors, and by the 1680s, the Germans had established a printing center in Berlin and the Swiss a center in Neuchâtel (7, 75).

Setting up a print works was a huge undertaking that required a lot of capital and a steady supply of cloth, dyestuffs, mordants, running water and labor. Still, they continued to spring up and Indian printed cottons continued to flow, much to the dismay of the established wool, silk, and linen producers. They complained vociferously and petitioned their governments to ban these textiles. France complied in 1686 by banning the production, importing, and wearing of all printed fabrics – essentially giving up their early advantage. Britain would soon issue their own prohibitions in the early 18th century.

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