Textiles & Costume

Calico, muslin, gauze – a history of fabric terminology – Part I

I’ve been promising Joie de Vivre a post on the history of calico and muslin, and why the same fabric is called by different names in different parts of the world.

Caracao, 1750+, Holland

Calico, but not as we know it. A caracao made in Holland in the second half of the 18th century, from Indian chintz patterned calico. Collection of the Met

This is how calico and muslin are defined today (as far as I can tell, feel free to supply additional insight if you make further/different distinctions):

In the US & Canada:

Calico – cotton fabric with a small, all-over floral print

Muslin – simple, cheap equal weft and warp plain weave fabric in white, cream or unbleached cotton and/or a very fine, light plain weave cotton fabric (sometimes called muslin gauze, though this usually applies to the very lightest, most open weave of these fabrics).

Gauze – any very light fabric, generally with a plain weave

Cheesecloth – Extremely soft and fine cotton fabric with a very open plain weave.

In the UK, Australia and NZ:

Calico – simple, cheap equal weft and warp plain weave fabric in white, cream or unbleached cotton.

Muslin – a very fine, light plain weave cotton fabric. Sometimes called muslin gauze

Gauze – Extremely soft and fine cotton fabric with a very open plain weave. Used almost interchangeably with cheesecloth.

The word ‘calico’ comes from Calicut, the European name for the Indian city of Kozhikode.

When Dutch traders began to visit India in the 17th century they were very impressed with Indian textiles, particularly a simple, cheap, equal weft and warp plain weave cotton fabric block printed in multicoloured floral designs.


18th century block printed Indian calico with a chintz pattern – V&A

Cotton was a very rare fabric in Baroque Europe, and multi-coloured printed fabrics were also rare. The combination of the two made the fabric from Calicut an irresistible novelty to the Dutch traders, and their European market.

‘Calicut’ fabric quickly became a desirable commodity in Europe. By 1680 over a million pieces of calico fabric were being imported into England, France, and Holland, respectively, each year, where it was used for clothes, bed hangings, and other items of furnishings.

1725-1750 bed cover V&A

1725-1750 bed cover. The cream background indicates that the fabric was printed for the European market, but the floral designs are more Southeast Asian in taste, indicating that the Indian textile artists were experimenting with combining motifs from their different markets (Thailand and Europe)

In addition to importing ‘calico’ from Calicut, by 1680 European manufacturers had taken out patents to make their own ‘callicoe’ fabric.

Banyan 1750-1775

1750-1775 banyan (man’s informal robe) The outer fabric was made in India specifically for a banyan, the banyan was made up in Europe and lined with a European made calico type fabric. Collection of the V&A


A detail of the banyan lining. Note the cream/red/black colour combination.

The commonest, easiest to produce (and thus cheapest) calico fabric was patterned in orange-red, black and cream, because this colour combination could be achieved in one alizarin dye bath with two different mordants, iron for black and alum for red, pre-positioned on the fabric. European traders called this fabric Indienne ordinaire.


ca 1680-1700 block printed Indian fabric for the European market. The classic red/black and cream colour combination (with the addition of purple) is clear, as are the European influences. The Stuart coat of arms is worked into the centre of this fabric (not visible in this fragment), and the pineapple visible at the bottom commemorates the celebrated introduction of the pineapple into Europe in 1680.

Caracao 18thc France

Late 18th century Caracao. The fabric is probably European, but the same techniques were used to achieve the simple and cost effective red/neutral colour scheme. Collection of the Met


A detail of the fabric

The distinctive red/black/cream colour combination was so prevalent that the name ‘calico’ was soon used to describe cats with this particular colour combination.


Felicity is a pastel calico: grey, orange and white.

While orange-red and black backgrounds were popular in India and other markets, Europe vastly preferred lighter backgrounds, and the Indian textile markets responded to this by producing more and more fabric with cream backgrounds, rather than darker colours.

18thc petticoat fragment

18th century fragment of a petticoat, produced in India for the European market. Note the strong European influence with the images Elizabethan courtiers combined with exotic motifs. Collection of the Met

In addition to the black and red on cream colour combination, Indian textile artists produced more expensive polychromatic floral prints on cotton, inspired by the vastly more expensive hand-painted Chinese silks.


This 1770-1790 waistcoat fragment could have been produced with 2 printings, an initial one to achieve the red and black, and a second one to apply the blue, making a relatively cheap and easy fabric to produce. Collection of the Met

Drouais 1763-4

Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour, 1763-64, Drouaise. Reinette is shown in a gown of expensive hand painted Chinese silk of the type that Indian textile artists would try to imitate.

1770-80 V&A

Hand painted cotton from India, such as the fabric used in this 1770-1780 caracao and petticoat, was a slightly cheaper alternative to the more expensive Chinese silk. Collection of the V&A

1770-80 V&A

Detail of the fabric. The red and blue colour scheme is achieved using the complex processes of resist-dyeing (for the blue) and mordant-dyeing (for the red), which also involve repeated stages of bleaching and rinsing.

V&A 1795-1799

And finally, the cheapest way to achieve the desired look was with block printed Indian cotton, which produced a stiffer and less naturalistic, but still attractive, result. This fabric is ca 1795-1799 and is in the collection of the V&A.

These particular types of pattern large floral patterns, whether on silk or cotton, are known as chintz. Some chintz is calico (if it is on cotton and block printed), but not all calico is chintz (depending on pattern) and not all chintz is calico (hand-painted and silk chintzes aren’t calico).

West India for Indonesian market
West Indian calico which is not a chintz produced for the Indonesian market. The same textile artists also produced chintz. Circa 1780, collection of the V&A
Basque 1790s

1790s basque in calico which is not chintz. Collection of the Met

I leave you, dear readers, in the second half of the 18th century, with chintz and calico firmly established as the informal fabric of choice for the fashionable elite of Europe, and the soon-to-be independent colonies across the Atlantic.

Next week I will discuss how calico came to refer to different fabrics in the Americas and in Europe.


  1. I am a Canadian and we tend to heavily follow the US’s choice of words. Your descriptions of the US defininitions is the same as my understanding of those definitions.

  2. Thanks for such an interesting read, the pictures were all stunning and really interesting topic, I’ve learned quite a lot. In the UK, the difference between muslin and calico is as you describe. Fomr shopping various fabric outlets here, Gauze seems to be a catch-all category, usually it relates to either drapes and curtain weight fine fabric (sometimes interchanging with voile) or the very loose weave used in bandages. Cheesecloth seems to vary in its use – in culinary use it appears to be muslin or very close, in clothing terms it is a loose weave cotton with a very rough hewn looking surface and often crinkled or smocked during the garment making process (resembling a translucent seer-sucker). I recall it used to be really popular for summerwear around 20 years ago then disappeared, recently I have started seeing it in the fabric shops again and in high street clothes stores.

  3. Margy says

    Thank you for the explanation, i loved your post, full of information and those beautiful pictures. The history of things is fascinating and I will be visiting again to deepen my scant knowledge of fabrics.

  4. Joie de Vivre says

    I never said thanks for posting this, but I LOVED this so much! Thank you thank you thanks you!

  5. Pingback: The Simple Tale of the Calico Cloth | Utsav pedia

  6. Harini says

    I loved this post! Thank you very much. You’ve provided such wonderful insights.

  7. Diana says

    Thank you for posting this distinction. I’m from the US but recently moved to the UK, and there was confusion yesterday when I asked about the price of a bolt of muslin, only to be told she didn’t have any. What I was looking at was calico to her and muslin to me, and now I know what to ask for next time!

  8. Bhavika Sicka says

    I’m writing from India. As part of a story I’m working on, I’ve been doing some research on the different fabrics that were popular in India during the 17th century, and the trade in cotton calicoes with the Dutch and the British in medieval Deccan. I’m especially interested in learning about chintz, and the process of creating the designs on the fabric. So thank you for this post; it is as informational as it is beautifully written!

  9. Thank you for this helpful article and the ones that go with it. I read a lot of domestic history, and the UK/US terminology can be confusing.

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