Fashion,  ThreadTalk

All About Chintz

1 – So! Chintz. You’ve probably heard the term “chintzy” and you’re thinking 1980s upholstery or prom dresses with puffy sleeves. And you’re right. Sort of.

We have George Eliot to thank for the term, it turns out. But this fabric is far from European: it’s from India.

Floral bodice ca. 1750 in chintz pattern. Public domain.

2 – The name comes from the Hindi word “chint” — which means “spotted” & is a kind of calico. It was produced on cotton & printed with wood blocks or sometimes painted by hand. Some early chintz even had a glaze on it to stiffen the material (ideal for upholstery).

Chintz from the Coromandel Coast, India, c. 1710–1725. V&A Museum

3 – Some say that chinz rose to popularity in India due to Babur, the first Moghul emperor who was purported to love gardens, flowers, and nature. It was used in tapestries and furniture, & often featured red dye from dyer’s madder (Rubia tinctorum) which is in the coffee family.

Various flowers with trailing stems on a red ground. Public Domain. 18th century.

4 – Chintz coloring was also applied in this order: black, red, blue, purple, yellow, and green — some applied by hand, some dip died.

Of course we have colonialism to thank for its spread to Europe. In particular, Vasco da Gama brought it back to Portugal in the late 15th C.

Bearded Portuguese man in armor with sword. Public Domain.

5 – As you’d expect, Europeans were totally calm about these bold patterns. Just kidding! They called the fabric indecent for being “pagan” and “heathen.”

Which naturally meant it became very popular. And that was a problem for the textile industry, especially in England.

Red background dress with white and green flower pattern. Chintz dress, 1785 - via Pinterest.

6 – Here’s where it gets wild. Fabric started outselling *spices* in terms of trade from India. And French and English textile makers were afraid they would lose business. So they started trying to curb trade and impose fines for wearing and selling the patterns.

Two-toned chintz dress, top in dark floral, bottom in pale floral via Pinterest

7 – Chintz was popular among nobles in Spain & France, but in England where it was used primarily for upholstery and home decor, it was the poorer classes who wore it, repurposing castoffs for their own fashion statements. Eventually the elite took it back because of course.

Sketch of 1770s Dutch woman's outfit with caraco (chintz) jacket - Public domain

8 – At one point, you could be punished by DEATH for smuggling or wearing chintz. And smuggling was all the rage. Because again, rich people wanted it. And of course, poor folk took the risks and the punishment. Even Queen Mary was fond of it, & Madame de Pompadour (see below)

9 – Europeans couldn’t figure out how to make it until a missionary (of course) stole the secret and sold it to Western markets. But until that point, it wasn’t uncommon to be fined for wearing chintz in public.

But we’re not quite done. It’s time for AMERICA.

Chintz fragment with tulips and insects (reportedly found in Japan), Coromandel Coast, India, ca.1700-30 - Public Domain

10 – Though George Washington purportedly bought 96 yards of chintz for the second floor of Mt. Vernon, the US became a competitor in terms of cotton — which is what chintz was made with. It’s considered the first “mass fashion” in fact.

Shaped cartouche pieced from a palampore. Background of red and white chintz. Green and white braid applied to outline the edges of the shape. Public Domain.

11 – Once the Americans developed cotton that could withstand frost, well, story over. Sober designs starting phasing out the brighter fabrics & by the mid-19th century the craze was over.

Until the Arts & Crafts movement. Inspired by the process, Morris & Co tried their hand

Printing chintzes at Merton Abbey c. 1890, first published in Morris & Company

12 – Chintz is still made in India, and just one yard of fabric can involve 8-10 people.

The 1980s married chintz and pastels. Designers like Betsey Johnson have made it a part of their repertoire. But it’s hard to believe that wearing it was once illegal.

Floral chintz waistcoat with red arms and white base. via Pinterest

13 – This is why worldbuilding with fabric is so powerful. All of that over floral shapes. Racism, sexism, classism, agriculture, exploration…


14 – And some more sources:


Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on January 26, 2021.