How did Indian cottons influence the growth of the British calico industry in the 18th and 19th centuries?

April 7, 2021 | Blog
Home > How did Indian cottons influence the growth of the British calico industry in the 18th and 19th centuries?

by Alka P. Raman (London School of Economics).  This blog is based on the author’s presentation to the Economic History Society’s annual conference, 2021 (session NRIIB).


The history of printed cotton is well known.  Exotic, multicoloured cottons were brought from India and created a frenzy of imitations in Britain and Europe.  What this imitation implied materially is less well known.  Existing literature refers to imitations but is silent on what form this imitation took and what its impact may have been on the industry; it also claims that while there existed some codified knowledge transfer from India, this was not widely diffused. Therefore, despite imitations, the literature contends that British and European printing techniques were not influenced by Indian techniques.


Figure 1. An example of Indian printed cotton. Source: contact the author.

Did the imitation of Indian cottons lead to the growth of the British calico printing industry? I address this question by first comparing three 17th century French manuscripts detailing Indian printing techniques against prominent 18th century English and European dye manuals to determine the historical diffusion of printing knowledge. Second, I chart the evolution of colours on British printed cottons between 1720 and 1860 and compare them with Indian textiles from the 18th century. My comparisons are based on a database of English and Indian printed and painted cotton textiles obtained from the Winterthur Museum, Delaware, USA. Using the number of colours on a textile as a measure of quality, I trace the historical evolution of English and Indian print quality. Finally, I assess whether the historiography on dyestuffs needs revision by testing for painted indigo in pre-1738 Indian cottons.

To test for knowledge transfer pertaining to printing techniques from India and their diffusion across Europe and Britain, I use English translations of three French manuscripts which are often cited on calico printing: the Roques manuscript compiled between 1678 and 1680, the Beaulieu manuscript compiled between 1726 and 1739, and the Coeurdoux manuscript compiled in the 1740s.

My research shows that both the Beaulieu and Coeurdeux manuscripts received significant attention from emerging calico printers in Europe. Basle’s famous textile printer, Jean Ryhiner, based his work on both the Coeurdoux and Beaulieu manuscripts. Chevalier de Querelles, a prominent dye expert in Paris, not only mentioned the Beaulieu manuscript and its connection to the French scientist Dufay, but also used it as the basis for his own discussion of Indian methods of cotton printing. The Coeurdoux manuscript was carefully scrutinised by the English scientist Edward Bancroft to verify their authenticity. Bancroft shared this knowledge in his popular and influential book Experimental Researches Concerning the Philosophy of Permanent Colours.

Another strand of my research, comparing the colours used in English and Indian printed and painted cottons between 1700 and 1860, demon starts that there was a significant increase in the number of colours used on British calicoes compared to those on Indian calicos from a much earlier period (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Number of colours in British and Indian calicos, 1700-1860. Source: Textile Collections, Winterthur Museum, Delaware


Figure 2 shows the evolution of colours from monochrome to polychrome in British calico printing, and convergence with Indian printed and painted cottons.

While analysing historic textiles for colours, some Indian textiles were identified where visual assessment suggests that the blue is painted on rather than resist-dyed. The existence of these textiles is not consonant with the historiography on dyestuffs, which credits English printers with inventing the technique of printing directly on to cloth with indigo using arsenic in the late 1730s. To test for painted indigo on pre-1738 Indian textiles, I conducted multiple scientific experiments with the help of scientists and curators at The Winterthur Museum’s textile laboratory. The results show that while the blue is indeed indigo, it does not contain arsenic. Further tests are required to ascertain potential historic Indian methods of printing and dyeing with indigo.

Textual and material evidence, therefore, suggest that codified and material knowledge transfer of Indian textile printing and painting stimulated the growth of the dyestuffs industry, enabling the print quality of English calicos to improve. Further, our understanding of dyestuffs historiography may need revision: more scientific investigations are required to establish an accurate chronology of the development of dyeing techniques.


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