The story of Printed and Painted Cottons from India

Printed and Painted Cottons

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Image Source:  Indian Textiles for the West by Rosemary Crill

Printed and Painted Cottons. “The world would be a drab place without India. Our blue jeans and printed T-shirts trace much of their lineage back to the ingenuity of India’s cotton printers and dyers,” says Sarah Fee, Royal Ontario Museum Senior Curator of Eastern Hemisphere Fashion and Textiles.  

Until 520 years ago, the  Europeans had known only linen and silk as compared to at least 5,000 years ago when Indian farmers had already started domesticating a species of tall tree cotton. And Indian weavers had already started weaving soft, washable, lightweight cotton that held colors well.

The start of Painted and Printed Cotton trade with Europe

By the time, the first European ships arrived in India in the 1500s. The Indian artisans’ had already for thousands of  years combined skills in weaving, painting, printing, dyeing, bleaching, and glazing cotton to embellish their superior fabrics for thousands of  years. Nonetheless, after the European ships returned from India with the first few samples of the lightweight, washable, gaily colored and patterned cottons, they became a fashion sensation! These cottons were a starting point for the start of the textile trade between India and West.

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It is a point of wonder that ancient Indian artisans came to master and dominate the art of making colors and mordants with the use of humble natural ingredients like rusty nails, and plant parts—such as roots, seeds, and powdered leaves. The durability and vibrancy of which can be justified by looking at the thousands of years old specimens of larger than life hand painted or printed Indian cottons displayed at the best museums around the world. 

Moreover, how did ancient Indian Artisans become masters in the art of dyeing and painting cotton with such primitive methods? As such, it is very difficult to get cotton cloth to absorb and retain coloured natural dyes. 

Srikalahasti, a coastal town that shares the history of printed and painted

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Detail of chintz jacket on show in The Fabric of India. Coromandel Coast for export to Europe, about 1750. Museum no. IS.12-1950. Given by G.P. Baker © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In our search for answers to these questions, earlier this year, in the month of February, we started developing samples of hand painted cottons at Srikalahasti, a coastal town that shares the history of printed and painted handloom cotton textiles, developed for the local sheepherders, rulers and temples to a reign of international textile trade relationship of India with the rest of the world. The port city of the Coromandel coast was  bustling from the 15th-17th century A.D. They were creating fabrics that were the luxury fabric of their day, coveted by all, and one of the great inventions that drew foreigners to India’s shores hungry for more.

The beauty of Srikalahasti textiles is that the textiles are literally painted with pens made out of bamboo using ingeniously made and vibrantly colored natural dyes. 

Artisanal cotton

When European trading companies started sailing directly to India from 1498.  They were carrying enormous quantities of Indian chintz back to Europe. These brightly coloured cottons from India impacted how Europeans dressed themselves and furnished their houses. The quality was such that the fabric hardly got stains as well as it had resistance for washing treatments. The European designers started sending sample patterns to India for craftsmen to copy. This was an artistic but slow process.

The case in point is that even today India is home to one of the best and varied artisan talents in the world. Even today, the patterns are sent by western designers for Indian artisans to copy. But today the process is quite different –

Now the pattern reaches the artisans within fractions of seconds via an email carrying some MegaBytes of the file weight. Earlier it took a long trip across several oceans for the pattern to reach the Indian Artisans.  

Traditionally, the artisans worked from their homes. The whole village would engage in the same craft and work as a collective village organization. Now, artisans work in factories in a more controlled environment. 

The Indian Artisan and the Western consumer

Most importantly the relationship between the Indian Artisan and the Western consumer has changed. In the beginning of textile trade, the artisans value was for their high skills and craftsmanship, whereas now the artisans are cheap labor. Earlier the west was in awe of Indian artisanal crafts. The printed and painted cotton was a reason for celebration. The demand was emotional. As a matter of fact, the demand grew to a point that there was a threat to the local textile industry of France and Britain. These European nations imposed bans on the use of these cotton whether for clothing or furnishing. 

From the 1600s, craftsmen across Europe tried to block print cottons using Indian methods. But they struggled to imitate India’s bright colors and fine details. Finally, around 1750, Britain and France mastered mass block printing cloth; to keep up with demand, they invented new printing technologies, such as engraved copper plates and engraved rollers. This period is also linked to the Industrial Revolution in Europe. 

The Industrial Revolution

The advent of printing technology and the rise of Europe’s industrial cotton textile manufacturing, rendered the natural dyes and artisanal processes obsolete. The machine printed replicas flooded the market at fraction of the price of the handmade cottons and forever changed how the world consumes resources and contributed to environmental damage that persists today. 

These hand painted cottons that connected cultures, inspired imitation and, quite literally, changed the world are now on the verge of revival as awareness grows today of the environmental destruction caused by strong chemical dyes and as the companies and designers look for sustainable and authentic ways of creating luxury.

We will soon share more interviews of researchers and practitioners of India’s Printed and Painted Cottons. 

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