Inspired by the V&A’s current India Festival and exhibitions, we’re sharing a short history of chintz, a fabric experiencing somewhat of a resurgence in the interior design world. Antique examples still inspire.

Chintz is calico cloth printed with flowers and other devices in different colours. The word Chintz is Hindi and derived from the Sanskrit “chitra” which means many-coloured or speckled.

Chintz was originally a painted or stained calico* produced in India from 1600 to 1800 and popular for bed covers, quilts and draperies. First exported to Europe in the early 1600s, Indian chintz textiles quickly captivated the western market and put chintz at the centre of a revolution in dress and furnishing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Around 1600, Portuguese and Dutch traders were bringing examples of Indian chintz into Europe. These early fabrics were extremely expensive and rare. By 1680 more than a million pieces of chintz were being imported into England per year, and a similar quantity was going to France and Holland.  [*One major centre of production for these fabrics was Calicut, which loaned its name to “calico,” a colourful fabric produced on cheap and often imperfectly finished cotton.]

With imported chintz becoming so popular with Europeans during the late 1600’s, French and English mills grew concerned, as they could not make chintz. In 1686 the French declared a ban on all chintz imports. In 1720 England’s Parliament enacted a law that forbid “the Use and Warings in Apparel of imported chintz, and also its use or Wear in or about any Bed, Chair, Cushion or other Household furniture“.  Even though chintz was outlawed, there were loopholes in the legislation. The Court of Versailles was outside the law and fashionable young courtesans continued wearing chintz. In 1734, French naval officer, M. de Beaulieu, who was stationed in Pondicherry, India, sent home letters along with actual samples of chintz fabric during each stage of the process to a chemist friend detailing the dyeing process of cotton chintz. His letters and samples can be seen today in the Musee’ Nationale d’Histore Naturelle in Paris. In 1759 the ban against chintz was lifted. By this time French and English mills were able to produce this desirable fabric.

Europeans at first reproduced Indian designs, taking advantage of consumer demand, and later added original patterns. A well-known make was toile de Jouy, which was manufactured in Jouy, France between 1700 and 1843.

Chintz patterns produced in England around 1760-1780 were influenced by Gothic and Chinese designs fashionable in furniture, and exotic bird patterns.  The flowers and objects in these designs were massed together, like little disjointed islands floating in mid-air.  These exotic patterns are not exclusively found upon chintzes, but also on early English porcelain for example.

During the Hepplewhite and Sheraton periods of furniture in the late 18th century, chintz patterns cease to be detached and grouped. Architectural details with figures (like those employed in toile the Jouy) disappear, and once more designers return to flowers as a subject for illustration. The foliage now takes the form of vertical stripes, being contained within lace-like ribands placed at even distances.

In the nineteenth century chintz designs featured disjointed sprigs, as though the flowers had been plucked and strewn over the cloth, or used meandering stems to hold them together.

Antique chintz textiles made in the 19th and early 20th century are often found for sale at the Fair.

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