Calamanco (also spelled callimanco, calimanco, and kalamink) is a thin fabric of worsted wool yarn which could come in a number of weaves: plain, satin, damasked, and was even brocaded in floral, striped and checked designs. The surface was glazed or calendered (pressed through hot rollers).
References to calamanco go back to the late 16th century, but calamanco’s heyday was from the end of the 17th century to the end of the 18th century. It was a popular fabric for women’s gowns and petticoats and men’s waistcoats, though it was gradually replaced by cotton and linen calico as a dress fabric.
Daniel Defoe mentions a petticoat of black calamanco in 1720, and they remained popular among the rural populace until the early 19th century. He also describes the wardrobe of the ‘poorest countryman’ in England and notes his ‘waistcoat of calimanco from Norwich.’
At least in the beginning of the century, calamanco wasn’t confined to the common man’s waistcoat. The Tatler in 1709 describes the wardrobe of the ‘Dapper’.
The habit of a Dapper when he is at home, is light broadcloth, with calamanca or red waistcoat and breeches and it is remarkable that their wigs seldom hide the collar of their coats.
Since the Dapper is also described at being most at home in the country, we can assume that the Tattler is describing more of a casual country gentleman than the type of man that we envision as a modern day dapper.
Most calamanco was produced in Norwich in England, and exported from there throughout England, and to the Colonies.
Unfortunately, because calamanco was often used for simple petticoats and working clothes, there aren’t very many extant garments. The Norfolk Museum has at least two pieces, a blue brocade calamanco from ca. 1765, and a striped piece from between 1750-1800, but alas, does not have images of them online. Meg Andrews has a striped petticoat that she describes as being similar to the ones at the Norfolk Museum, but it’s not entirely clear if her petticoat is also calamanco. The Manchester Galleries have a petticoat with a calamanco hem, but their photograph doesn’t show that part of the petticoat.
Most extent calamanco pieces are either quilts, or the linings of quilted silk petticoats, where the cheaper calamanco fabric would provide warmth beneath the more fashionable silk exterior.
As the century progressed, not only did calamanco become less and less fashionable, even among the working classes, its definition became less and less defined. The glazed surface was such a common characteristic of calamanco fabrics that ‘calamanco’ eventually referred to a range of wool and wool blend fabrics with glazed surfaces. These fabrics were often used in quilts, particularly in North America.
Apparently, because calamanco was so often striped, striped tabby cats were sometimes called calamanco cats, though this may also have been a confused regional variant based on the similarities between the words ‘calico’ and ‘calimanco’ and the term for a calico cat. Construction finishes with plaster and timber alternating were also called calamanco-work.
For a bit of a history of the use of calamanco in quilts check out this article.
Andrews, Meg. Norwich Woollens or Stuffs. Retrieved from http://www.meg-andrews.com/articles/norwich-woollens/
Buck, Anne. Dress in 18th Century England, B.T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1979
Cunnington, C. Willet and Cunnington, Phyllis. Handbook of English Costume in the 18th Century. Faber and Faber Ltsd: London. 1957