It is indeed intriguing to know that a fabric which was an integral part of my growing up, as a frock, a kameez and a top was called Chintz! Cheent or Chint was a generic term that described anything with a floral print - be it a saree a shirt or a bed sheet!
How did this cheent transform into the Anglicised Chintz?
Even more fascinating is the story of this fabric whose name comes from the Hindi language, was printed on Calico, along the Coromandel coast, looks suspiciously similar to Kalamkari and was exported from the port of Masulipatnam in such quantities that it became a threat to the emerging textile industry in Great Britain, to counter which the Calico Acts were passed. Such was the power of humble cheent or chintz!
Cotton in bloom Fries Museum
Chintz was a fabric which was extremely popular all over the continent: France, Holland, England - all were mesmerised by the beauty of these prints.
The fascination can be best understood by John Ovington, who came to India in 1689 and summarized his observations by saying:
“In some things the artists of India out-do all the ingenuity of Europe, viz., the painting of chintes or callicoes, which in Europe cannot be paralleled, either in their brightness and life of color or in their continuance upon the cloth”.
Journey of Chintz
Chintz originated in the subcontinent, where it was inspired by the floral prints of the Mughal rulers; the Muslim rulers of northern India before the British. The floral prints were loosely based on Islamic art - arabesques and the Safavid art of Persia. The first chintz patterns were of the tree of life.
Chintz was manufactured in India as block printed, painted or stained calico (calico being predominantly produced in the South of India) and first exported to the Middle East and South East Asia. The first samples came to England, France and The Netherlands in small quantities via early Dutch and Portuguese traders in the 16th century.
By the 17th century, English spice traders found chintz to be a valuable trade commodity .When they began importing the fabric into England, they found an even greater market for the textile and soon it was imported it all over the continent.
Chintz, polished cotton of verdant foliage and leaves coloured in multiple rich hues, was unlike anything the Europeans had known. Its lustrous beauty evoked visions of strange cultures and unknown lands. The print was bright, the colours were fast, the pattern exotic, the cotton - which was new to the west, was highly desirable in itself. It was far superior to anything produced in Europe at the time and there was an immediate demand.
Chintz in interiors
Tree of life hanging and associated fragments.
Chintz Place of origin: Coromandel Coast V&A London
It initially entered the European homes as an interior fabric. Much later it was to dress up the genteel folks. It was exported as “Palampore” fabrics. An anglicized term for the Hindi word palanposh meaning bed cover!
It was used for wall hangings, bed curtains and bed canopies too. At that time in Europe, fabrics were patterned using simple block prints or embroideries and colours were not always fast or bright. In contrast the chintz was dazzlingly bright and colours did not bleed.
Queen Mary was known to have decorated her bedroom with these cottons, and by 1680, more than a million pieces of chintz were exported to England per year, with a similar number exported to France and The Netherlands.
Chintz, ca. 1775, India. Collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Looking at these pieces one is stuck by its resemblance to Kalamkari, the motifs, the dyeing technique is the same. Then why is it called Chintz? As the weavers started printing according to the tastes of the Europeans, the Kalamkari transformed into Chintz. The weavers of those days knew how to customise a cloth according to the market, be it China or Europe. Since Chintz could not be handmade, blocks were used to print the motifs.
The chintz above is much more ‘European looking’, but still also made in India probably for the European market though). As one can see, it has a much later date, indicating how the chintz became more ‘European’ and evolved with fashion.
Local Indian craftsmen slowly started to incorporate western designs based on drawings and samplers sent out from England, France and Holland. A hybrid style developed that combined, Indian, Chinese and European sensibility.
English made chintz, early 19th century. V&A
Indian chintz was copied from the very start. In the beginning these copies weren’t very good. The Indians had a way of binding the color to the cotton to make the fabrics keep their color after washing, and they hand-painted the fabrics. Early European copies didn’t keep their color well and were block-printed instead of painted. Nevertheless, many companies started making imitations of chintz, and started trying to copy the process to keep the colors, getting more successful as they went.
The above image is of a pattern named chintz and it’s also much more English. There are generally a lot more roses and pinks and the resemblance with kalamkari is faded. Now it looks more English - in patterns and hues pastels.
Schloss Hoff, in Austria, built in 1725
With their brilliant colours, fast hues and luxurious polished surface finish, Indian chintzes made for the export market were among the most desirable of the printed cottons.
A lot of chintz was used for home decorations. Curtains, wall hangings and chair coverings are all seen, but bedspreads and blankets seem most popular of all.
Chintz in Garments
Emanuel de Witte, 1678
Chintz was often used in clothing. All existing chintz clothing is from the 18th century when it peaked in popularity. It was already worn in the 17th century though, as shown by the girl’s portrait above. This is one of the earliest depictions of chintz being worn.
Baby Jacket, probably re-made from a skirt.
Although we see a lot of chintz dressing gowns for men in the higher circles, it seems that for daily wear chintz was commonly worn by women. Baby clothes were very common probably because little fabric was needed, so jackets and skirts could easily be re-made into baby clothes. One could wash chintz well without it fading, it was soft on baby’s skin; natural and breathable, hence immensely suitable for the young infants.
French seamstress sewing garments using chintz fabric
Initially the large-scale designs were used and later smaller floral patterns with borders were created to be tailored into garments in Europe. The craze for chintz patterns were not limited to women, garments for men were restricted to indoor robes, waistcoats and night wear.
Banyan (indoor robe) once worn by George IV (1762-1830) while he was Prince of Wales
Despite its popularity, chintz never really was used much by the upper class for their best clothes. These fashions were very much influenced by the French court (even in the Netherlands), and employed very rich fabrics. Silks most commonly, often embroidered with silver and gold thread. Nevertheless, chintz was worn by the upper classes. It was mostly used in ‘undress’. These were clothes worn at home, for non-official occasions or items such as dressing gowns. This probably also explains why we don’t see many portraits of high-class women wearing chintz, they did own it (records of property show this quite clearly), but never flaunted it!
Detail of chintz jacket given by G.P. Baker © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Brightly patterned soft cotton chintz dresses became very popular in Britain and the Netherlands from the 1660s. The fashion reached its peak in the early 18th century. The relative cheapness of Indian fabrics meant that ordinary men and women could afford to wear chintz. The situation upset some who complained they could no longer tell a servant from her mistress!
Although there was a great appreciation among British consumers for chintz, it was a threat to the English weavers, printers and spinners who protested in huge numbers and mobbed the house of commons in 1697. A law was passed banning import of Indian dyed cotton and silks into Britain except for re – export, a loophole for the fashionable women to get it smuggled!
A second law was passed to plug the loophole. The ban remained effective till 1774. By then the fickle world of fashion had turned its back on Chintz and the glorious designs were soon to fade away from the collective memory of fashion conscious Europeans.
Yet, the magic of the colours, the brilliance of the designs, the soft touch of the cotton, the allure of the chintz still calls out many designers. As late as 2016 we had models from top design houses sashaying the ramp totally Chintzed and the audience completely besotted!