Coveting and Copying

Printed cotton fabrics trickled into European markets after the discovery of sea routes to Southeast Asia. With the opening of the English and Dutch East India companies, early in the 1600s, trade was slow but steady.  In the 1640s, however, modifications to traditional Indian designs, particularly lighter background colors, spurred increased consumer demand (although the Dutch market preferred fabrics printed in traditional red grounds).

Indian textiles were popular initially for home décor, but eventually became a staple for fashionable clothing. As the 18th century began, cotton threatened the long-standing European wool and silk industries. 

Finally, in an attempt to slow the Indian textiles’ detrimental impact on domestic markets, English and French governments placed restrictions on imports of printed cloths from India.  In England, a 1701 ruling forbade the import of Indian-dyed or printed cotton or silk except for re-export, and in 1721 a law banned the use of chintz, remaining in effect until 1774.

In response, savvy  European manufacturers sought to uncover the secrets of the complex processes Indian dyers used. Since cotton doesn’t readily absorb dyes, dyers required mordants—substances that bind dye molecules to cotton.

British manufacturers developed new processes that sped up the entire line of cotton spinning, weaving, and printing and made greater amounts of printed textiles available. These technical advances allowed British manufacturers to corner the market on printed cottons, effectively eliminating India from the trade and controlling the lucrative U.S. market.

The British maintained tight control of textile production throughout the first decades of the 19th century until the 1830s when the United States became a player in the cotton printing industry. Once the U.S. began producing its own fabric, competition began to drive prices down, with prices for cotton calico reaching as little as 5 cents a yard after the Civil War.