Designs on India

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Chintz was the height of fashion in the 18th century. Ruth Singer explores its cross-cultural origins

Bed curtains were once used by wealthy home owners to provide warmth, protection from draughts and privacy in a four-poster bed. Curtains could be wool, either embroidered or plain, or fashionable, expensive imported Indian painted cotton known as chintz, like this example. Painted cotton was much more expensive than wool hangings and suggests that the owners of these hangings wanted to show off their wealth, and enjoy the new fashionable Indian cloth.

This piece was probably made about 1700, though similar cloths were imported to England from the late 17th century until later in the 18th century. Legislation was then brought in to protect and promote home production and England rapidly became the world centre of the cotton weaving industry.

The Coromandel coast area of south-east India was well known for the production of painted cloths which were imported in huge quantities to Europe, Egypt, Arabia and China during the 17th century. The East India Company, a British trading business, was set up in this area in 1600 with the aim of exporting chintz to Britain. We don't know who made this particular cloth but it is likely that the painters were local.

Painted chintz later developed into a cheaper form of printed cotton. The word chintz comes from the Hindi word chint meaning a spattering or stain.

The coloured pattern is created using a combination of traditional Indian dyeing techniques - mordant dyeing and resist dyeing. Mordants are metallic compounds added to a dye to fix it to the fabric. Without a mordant, most dyes will fade. The red areas were coated with alum mordant (double sulphate of aluminium and potassium) and the cloth dyed red. The dye would only fix to the mordanted areas. The same process would take place with the black area. In order to protect each colour as the new one is added, the first colour is protected by a resist material, usually wax.

The red dye was made from the roots of the madder plant - the local type is particularly bright and colourfast and was highly regarded in Europe where it was known as East India Madder. A later development, common in the 19th century, involves printing patterns using carved wooden blocks. This technique is still carried out in India today, but painted chintz is no longer made.

The design of this cloth is based on a flowering tree which was one of the most popular designs at the time. Similar designs appear on British-made embroidered hangings, known as crewel work (the type of wool used in the embroidery is called crewel). Each culture influenced the designs of the other. Indian textile painters used British designs supplied by the trading companies to adapt their work for the British market while British embroiderers copied fashionable Indian textiles. The flowering tree design has influences from Islam, China and Europe. The sharing of design ideas and fashion was influenced by the movement of goods as a result of international trade and diplomatic activity.

Ruth Singer is adult education officer at the Victoria amp; Albert Museum

Lesson ideas

This curtain is on display in the Victoria and Albert British Galleries alongside an English crewel-work curtain of similar design.

It could be used to study a range of topics, including the history of trade and colonialism, and textile design and print.

In history, it could be used to explore cross-cultural developments created by the expansion of British influence and the East India Company and the relationship between the Mughal kingdom and Britain before the formation of the British empire. Students may be surprised by the background to the floral patterns and Indian-inspired fashions they see today. Chintz, which looks to modern eyes like a very British style, has diverse cultural origins.

The makers of this textile were undoubtedly much poorer than those who owned it, and pupils could explore their relative economic status. This could lead to a discussion of the development of industrial processes in textiles and the effect on craft producers in the 18th century and today.

For instance, why is painted chintz no longer produced?

Students may be surprised that English has borrowed Indian words. Textile terms such as chintz could be used as a starting point for investigating other familiar words such as bungalow and pyjamas. Chintz is also a great starting point for exploring design and print. Multimedia responses might include layering using natural shapes in different materials, such as paper, acetate and textiles. Combinations of textures using natural materials, such as pressed flowers and seed heads, could also be experimented with.

Repeat patterns, similar to this chintz design, and the eventual mechanisation of craft techniques can form part of design, technology and maths. Science can also be brought in, looking at natural and chemical dyes and fixatives.

Key stage 1 and 2 art and design lDraw or paint from nature, making simple printing blocks. Try simple natural dyes such as tea, beetroot or Indian spices such as turmeric KS3 history and citizenship

* Discuss cross-cultural influences in the past and today. Explore citizenship using the themes of cultural diversity, mutual respect and understanding.

* Look at Indian textiles and styles in modern British fashion and homes and what these can tell us about cultural identity in modern society. Ask students how they feel about cross-cultural influences and the possible weakening or strengthening of cultural identity through fashion.

KS3 textiles, art and design

* Explore screen and block printing, stencils, painting, batik and resist dyeing using patterns based on natural forms.

* Students could search at home for textiles and other craft objects with traditional designs and investigate how historic textiles can be used to create modern designs.

British Galleries Teachers' Pack Plant motifs in textiles:

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