The Fascinating History of Chintz

21st Jun 2022
The Fascinating History of Chintz

Chintz refers to a smooth fabric decorated in colourful country florals, which was especially popular in the mid 20th century. The cheerful homely patterns were widely used for upholstery, bedlinens, cushions, and curtains, as well as ladies clothing and accessories.

By the late 20th century, chintz had fallen out of fashion, and become synonymous with dated hotels and twee suburban lounges. However, the design has made a comeback in recent years, both in a traditional format, and with a more contemporary twist. Here’s a look at the origins of chintz, and how to add a modern floral flavour to your home.

Asian roots

The first cotton calico chintzes originated from the Indus Valley, in between India and Pakistan about 4,000 years ago. The world chintz comes from the Hindi chint, which means ‘spotted’, ‘variegated’, ‘speckled’, or ‘sprayed’, the BBC reports. This doesn’t refer to the design, or even the fabric, but to the dyeing process which helped the colours stay fast.

The chintzes produced in Asian regions were luxurious, with deep vivid colours, and high-quality glazed fabrics that were made to last. However, as they spread to the Western world, many of the chintzes were of an inferior quality, mass produced and not bearing any of the luxury and richness of the originals.

A cutthroat trade

The cosy twee image of chintz bears nothing of the troubled trading history that brought it to Europe. By the 17th century, bona fide Indian chintzes which had been printed with woodblocks or penwork were the height of elegance and exotic sophistication in upper class households.

However, it wasn’t all about beauty and luxury. As the craze for chintz spread throughout all sections of society across Europe, the local textile manufacturers grew angry. There was less demand for previously popular fabrics, such as silk, linen, and wool, and they resented the competition from the Eastern traders.

The ruling powers of the day agreed with the local textile manufacturers that the calico imports were a threat to the West, and chintz imports were banned by the French and British for much of the 18th century, and similar laws were introduced in Spain, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire.

Despite punitive sanctions against illicit traders, chintz continued to make its way into Europe via smuggling routes, and the appetite for the fabrics continued.

Chintz for the mass market

As printing technologies became more advanced, European manufacturers began to experiment with mass producing their own chintz designs. However, to avoid relying on cotton imported from Asia, the US developed its own variety of cotton, with tragic consequences that still echo down the centuries today.

Vast areas of land were cleared in the southern states of the US, removing indigenous peoples, often brutally and to the brink of extinction. It also saw the beginning of the slave trade from West Africa, and the scale of the injustice to humanity is still difficult to comprehend today.

By the 19th century, chintz had begun to fall out of fashion, and Britain had lost its US market. The novelist George Eliot was said to have coined the derogatory term ‘chintzy’ to refer to the low quality, gaudy designs that had flooded the market. However, the handmade Arts and Crafts designs influenced by Eastern methods remained popular.

Chintz in the 20th century

Chintz remained a prestigious textile in its native Indian regions, both for interior design and high end clothing. In Europe, it became briefly popular again in the 1960s, and again in the 1980s, as designers such as Laura Ashley introduced fresh takes on florals for homeware and ladies clothing.

The beginning of the Scandi minimalist fashions which have so dominated the past two decades were already emerging, with Swedish furniture giant’s ‘Chuck out Your Chintz’ advertising campaign, designed to encourage consumers to embrace their clean modernist aesthetic.

Contemporary chintz

The enduring appeal of chintz looks set to keep making a comeback. In recent years, younger generations have embraced the ‘cottagecore’ aesthetic that was once considered the height of frumpy suburban taste. Chintz has inspired fashionable modern designers here in the West as well, such as Cath Kidston.

According to Homes and Gardens, searches for chintz patterns soared by 240% during 2021. As well as feeding our desire for nostalgia and nature, there are also more modern takes on the traditional format, with more abstract bold designs, that can add a colourful focal point to any room.

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