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Part 17. Chintz Part One: Historical Background

Part 17 - CHINTZ Part One: Historical Background

Chintz covers such an awesome area of knowledge that I have divided my review into covering the history of chintz and then the development and production of chintz in England. Chintz may be defined as “specially designed painted or printed cotton, sometimes glazed, which was used for clothing traded in the Spice Islands or Persia and the Near East.” India had been home to such highly skilled craftsmen for generations that it was not until the Industrial Revolution so altered our spinning, weaving and dyeing techniques that we had any chance of competing with these imported treasures.

My first recommendation in this fascinating textile story is Trade Goods by Alice Beers Baldwin. It was written to accompany exhibition of Indian Chintz in 1970 so is half catalogue, half text.  Subtitled A Study of Indian Chintz in the Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the author begins with a brief Forward, a page on the Definition of Chintz –quoted above – and thirty pages on History. This hassubheadings: The Merchant Adventurers, The Ambassador, The Trade, The Factors at Work, The Materials and The Plantations. Four pages of Technical Description, The Making of the Chintzes follow.  Despite such unexciting titles this is a very readable and interesting book, scholarship with a light hand. Two pages of footnotes end the text, then the Catalogue consists of forty two-page spreads, an illustration facing text which includes technical details such as size, origin etc with a detailed description of the chintz and other points of interest. As all but three of the plates are black and white these colouring details are necessary.  The book ends with two pages of Footnotes, afive page Bibliography and a three page Glossary. Altogether a well written book, worth seeking out.

Master Dyers to the World by Mattiebelle Gitinger is slightly heavier going. Subtitled Technique and Trade in Early Indian Dyed Cotton Textiles, her main chapters are Master Dyer’s Skills, Master Dyers in Antiquity:Fostat, Master Dyers to India, Master Dyers to The East and Master Dyers to The West.. The book begins with a brief Foreword, a brief Preface and a six page Introduction- illustrated with a map and cotton plant. The twelve pages of Master Dyer’s Skills are again usefully illustrated with dye plants and the stages of mordant dyeing in colour. The Fostat referred to is near present-day Cairo and this chapter discusses the historical importance of the fifteenth century fragments found there and illustrated in this thirty-page chapter. Master Dyers to India is nearly a hundred pages long, well illustrated with plates in colour and black and white. Occasionally the caption length interferes with the narrative flow, which does not make for an easy read. The forty pages of Master Dyers to the East follows a similar layout but has less detailed captions, similarly the shortest chapter: Master Dyers to the West. A five page Pictorial Supplement, contemporary black and white photographs of dyers in India, is included before a three page Glossary and an eight page Bibliography. This latter, taken with Notes to the Text and Notes to the Illustrations included at the end of each chapter, present a formidable body of scholarship, when you reach the end of this book you will feel well informed if not entertained.

After Mattiebelle Gitinger has put India’s control and coverage of the chintz trade into perspective for those of us who had assumed Europeans were the main importers of chintz, I have included John Guy’s Woven Cargoes, Indian Textiles in the East. This explains the important influence India had on their textiles. Here is another scholarly book, a typical Thames and Hudson production so extremely well illustrated in both colour and black and white throughout the text. The first chapter, Textiles, Culture and Spices sets the scene, Techniques and Production Centres is twenty pages of just that. Indian Cloth and International Trade, The Asian Trade before European Intervention, The Malay World, Indonesia, “Cloths in the Fashion of Siam”, China and “Strange Painteinges ”The Japan Trade, follow. It is all very readable though I found I frequently had to consult the Glossary at the end of the book. Along with it are Notes for all the chapters together, an excellent five page Bibliography, a three page Index, a page for Radiocarbon-Dated Indian Textiles, another for Illustration Credits and Notes and the last page for Acknowledgements. This book gives the V&A textile collection a new perspective.

My final book is in many ways the most important of the four, the seminal work that underpins our current thinking on the history of chintz. The Origins of Chintz by John Irwin and Katherine Brett. It proposes and proves that the so-called Indian designs of chintzes we imported were often reworked English models. The Origins of Chintz was published in 1970 and completely changed thinking about chintz so bear this in mind when reading older textile books and their accounts of the European trade.

This is a very desirable book, elegantly written and superbly illustrated. There are, however two drawbacks; most of the illustrations are black and white though this does have the advantage of focussing your attention on the designs themselves rather than the colours of the chintz - and also the high price of the book. Look at Availability at the end of the article and think about borrowing it from the library!

The Origins of Chintz begins with an interesting one page Authors’ Preface. Then there are seven chapters: The Significance of Chintz, followed by The Pattern of Trade, Technique and Conditions of Manufacture, Early Coromandel Group: 16000 to 1650, The Flowering Tree (with five full colour plates) Furnishing Fabrics and Costume. Then come the important Appendices, first A” Beaulieu’s account of the Technique of Indian cotton-painting, c1734, introduced and with a commentary by P.R. Schwartz. Thisisillustrated with the original colour plates shown in Alice Baldwin Beer’s Trade Goods and many publications since. Appendix “B” is Father Coeurdoux’s letters on the technique of Indian cotton painting, 1742 and 1747, again with P.R Swartz.  Appendix “C” is The Roxburg account of Indian cotton-painting: 1795 by P.R. Swartz. These accounts are also much quoted and cited in later publications. This part of the text ends with a six page Bibliography arranged under subjects. Each chapter had had footnotes.

The substantial second half of the book comprises the complete chintz collections of the V & A in London and the Royal Ontario Museum. Essentially the detailed captions and plate descriptions have been grouped as: Part 1, Early Coromandel group: 1600 t0 1650; Part 2, Furnishing Fabrics, Part 3; Costume and Part 4 Armenian Church Fabrics. Then come the 158 black and white, full-page plates arranged numerically. A two page Index is the last entry. A very readable and fascinating book, which deserves its reputation in the canon of textile history. 


Trade Goods by Alice Baldwin Beer was published by The Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington D.C. in 1970. It is now out-of-print but there were eight copies available on A.B.E the large second-hand book group when I last looked. Their prices ranged from $20-$61.00 however were all for sale in America. Though with the exchange rate this may be a good time to buy. (2021 update - try )

Master Dyers to the World by Mattiebelle Gittinger was published in 1982 by The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., ISBN 0-87405-020-0. Again out-of -print but A.B.E had seven copies, all in America at $23.70 to $74.48

Woven Cargoes by John Guy is published by Thames and Hudson (1998), ISBN 0-5000-01863-4 at £32.00 This is also listed on A.B.E at prices ranging from £18-£64.00

Origins of Chintz by John Irwin and Katherine B. Brett was published in 1970 by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, ISBN 11-290053-4. The price then was £5.00, now there are fourteen copies on A.B.E from £75-£160. You may want to look at a library copy before buying second-hand but it is an excellent reference.

Next issue will be Part 2 with some cheaper books covering the Development of Chintz in England.

© Brigid J.Ockelton. 2006

PLEASE NOTE - An indication is given of the availability and market price of the book at the time of writing and may not reflect today's availability and price. Equally, some website links may also now be out of date.