Did you know these English words for cloth and fabric have originated from India?

The term “fabric”, defined as “textile, woven, or felted cloth”, only came into existence in the 18th century

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 4 Apr 2024, 7:07 PM

Many of the words used in the English language for various kinds of cloth and fabric have fascinating Indian origins. Fabric production dates back to ancient civilisations, where early societies utilised flax fibres, which were separated into strands and woven into basic textiles, which were then dyed using plant extracts. However, the term “fabric”, defined as “textile, woven, or felted cloth”, only came into existence in the 18th century.

As early as the 12th century, “Madras” referred to a type of handmade fabric worn by peasants in India’s Madraspatnam, now Chennai. Local weavers used soft fibres from the native trees’ tip-skin to create a 36-inch-wide square cloth. Initially, they block-printed this cloth with vibrant check patterns. Over time, the Indian weavers shifted from block printing to dyeing the yarns with vegetable dyes, giving rise to the distinctive handwoven “madras check” patterns. The British colonists exported the Madras fabric to their African colonies, where it was referred to as “Injri” (“Real India”) and became an integral part of African customs. In the 20th century, when Madras cloth was exported to America, buyers were concerned to discover that the dyed colours “bled” into each other in their washing-machines. The Indian exporters, guided by advertising giant David Ogilvy, cleverly advertised that was an unusual quality of their product, rather than a liability. A 1966 catalogue advertisement announced: “Authentic Indian Madras is entirely handwoven from yarns dyed with native vegetable colourings. Home-spun by native weavers, no two plaids are the same. When washed with mild soap in warm water, they are guaranteed to bleed and blend into distinctively muted and subdued colourings.” “Bleeding Madras” became all the rage.

“Paisley”, a decorative textile pattern featuring the Persian boteh motif, is teardrop-shaped with a curved upper end. This design was traditionally woven onto silk garments using silver and gold materials. While the motif itself has Persian origins, the intricate patterns are originally Indian. Paisley patterns gained popularity when the British East India Company imported the design from India during the 18th and 19th centuries. The term “Paisley” came from the town of Paisley, in western Scotland, a leading textile producer that was the first to adopt and reproduce this distinctive design, but the product originated in India.

“Seersucker”, a lightweight linen material, derives its name from the Hindi term sirsakar, an Indian adaptation of the Persian expression shir-o-shakhar, which translates to “milk and sugar” and reflects the alternating textures of the fabric. The striped and crinkled textile found its way to the European market by the 17th century. English and French textile producers promptly embraced both the term and the fabric for their domestic manufacturing. Seersucker, with its various patterns and colours, remained popular well into the 20th century.

“Chintz” initially referred to a type of cloth adorned with flowers or vibrant patterns, crafted through woodblock printing, painting, or staining. This remarkable luxury textile was termed “Chintz” in English, derived from the Hindi term chhint. Interestingly, the plural form of the word underwent a transformation, with the -s changing to -z, and it eventually came to be treated as a singular noun. This unique fabric, originating from the Coromandel coast in South-East India, made its way to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries aboard the ships of the East India Company, and made waves worldwide.

In a letter to his sister in 1851, author George Eliot wrote, “The quality of the spotted cloth is best, but the effect is chintzy”. Eliot, who is credited with the earliest usage of the term “chintzy”, was probably criticising not genuine Chintz but rather an inexpensive imitation of it. British factories had inundated global markets with countless copies of Chintz, rendering it easily accessible to the general public and stripping away any initial association with luxury.

Fabrics were often generically referred to as “calico”, a synonym for exotic cloth. “Calico” has its origins in Calicut, the name of the seaport on the Malabar coast in India, where Europeans initially acquired “kalyko”, or white cotton cloth, during the 17th and 18th centuries. You can credit India — the world’s leading cloth exporter for centuries before the Industrial Revolution — for most of the key English words for textiles.


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