The Medieval Calico Craze



A few rolls of calico cloth is all it took to take Europe by storm!

Named after a little trading town along the Malabar coast, Calicut, calico was one of the port’s most famous export to the world. How famous? Famous enough for the British to ban its import to protect the interests of its local weavers. In retrospect, calico trade would be one of the catalysts to the growth of the British East India Company in India.

Calico’s origins can be dated to the 16th century CE and traced to a tiny weaving community in Kerala called the Saliyas. Historians have even found evidence of a similar piece of cloth in Egypt, which is believed to have originated from a port in Gujarat in the 15th century CE.

An Indian fabric fragment from Egypt belonging to the 15th century CE
An Indian fabric fragment from Egypt belonging to the 15th century CE|Wikimedia Commons. 

The Portuguese, ably supported by their monopoly of the India trade route, would introduce the cloth to Europe in 1592. It was only after a Portuguese trading nau or ship was seized by the British, that they’d learn of this fabric. And pursue its trade furiously.

In about 30 years, the Carreira da Índia, or the Portuguese India trade run would decline, making way for the Britist East India Company trade. They would set up a base further North of the Malabar coast, in Surat and start exporting calico to England in 1621 CE.

Exit Portuguese, enter the Dutch. By the 1630s, there would be a new player in the arena, vying for the same prize - the Dutch now sought control of the calico trade to Europe. The stakes were extremely high, with over 43% of Dutch exports from India to Europe comprising of textiles, mostly calico. And the profit? Anywhere between 65% to 160%!

For the British East India Company too calico was the biggest export from Surat. And this was fueled by a rising demand for the cloth. While the fabric was initially used as table cloths, coverlets, napkins and wall hangings, it would soon make its way to apparel. Over time calico turned into a crucial utilitarian item for all classes in England. Calico was everywhere: as shifts, diapers and even stockings. Exports to other areas like Africa also picked up.

Trade numbers from this period are astounding. The British exported about 84,000 pieces of the different varieties of calico from India. And this would only grow. By 1684 CE the quantity of calicoes exported to England was over a quarter of a million pieces - and this accounted for as much as 73% of the company’s trade.

The calico craze reached its peak in the 1680s when these fabrics were used for clothes. Traders’ wives had abandoned English brocades and Venetians for glazed calico, popularly called as ‘Indian Chintz’. In about a decade, ‘Chintz’ would be everywhere, with trousseau fashioned out of the fabric and it even made its way into pop culture, featuring in anniversaries and events. In fact, the first wedding anniversaries were called a ‘calico wedding’!

Robes made of glazed calico
Robes made of glazed calico|Wikimedia Commons.

The calico craze would adversely impact the economy, with overstocking leading to a virtual collapse of the local textile industry in England. The turning point came in 1697 CE, when the silk weavers of Spitalfields, London rioted to protest against calico imports.

Regulation followed, with the British Parliament imposing a ‘calico tax’ and followed that with a prohibition act against the fabric. ‘Stiff’ fines were imposed on anyone caught wearing the fabric. As a result of this, the British East India Company would begin shipping raw cotton to Europe, fueling the British textile industry - a move that would have radical repercussions here in India.

The calico trade began to taper down by the 1820s and never again would the fabric that took Europe by storm, experience its glory days again.

Calico hoods worn by prisoners
Calico hoods worn by prisoners|Wikimedia Commons.

Did You Know

In the Pentonville Prison in England, calico hoods were worn by all prisoners in solitary confinement while outside their cells.

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