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Calico, muslin, gauze – a history of fabric terminology – Part 2

When I left you at the end of last week’s post on calico, muslin and gauze, ‘calico’ was a fashionable fabric imported from India, frequently patterned in large, open floral patterns called ‘chintz’ and most commonly having a pale white or cream background.

It looked like this:

1785-1795 Robe a la Anglaise
1785-1795 Robe a la Anglaise, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (incidentally, the original robe is shown over a modern reproduction of a petticoat, made of what North American’s would call muslin, and the British and Antipodeans would call calico)

Or this:

V&A 1795-1799
Round gown, 1795-1799, collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The one constant thing about fashion though, is it’s inconstancy. The large ‘bizarre’ prints of the early 18th century gave way to the open, delicate, rococo florals seen above, and soon these would give way to a new fashion on patterns.

From the end of the 18th century onwards, patterns became smaller, closer together, and more regular.


1797-1798 calico gown sprinkled with allover floral pattern. Collection of the Met

The fashion for patterns of white backgrounds also began to change. Pale colours were reserved for evening dress, and were usually unpatterned, or decorated with embroidery rather than printing. Patterned day wear, on the other hand, became darker in colour.

Basque 1790s

1790-1800 basque, Collection of the Met

By the 1820s allover patterns coloured backgrounds were far more common than patterns on white.

1830s English walking dress

1830s walking gown, collection of the V&A


Page from a 1823 fabric sample book, Collection of Old Sturbridge Village

The change from a taste for open rococo florals on cream backgrounds to the much more densely patterned prints of the first half of the 19th century directly coincided with North America’s rise to economic and political ascendency.

The first half of the 18th century also saw a major shift away from the cities of the East Coast of the US. Between 1790 and 1836 the number of US states doubled from the original 13 to 26, extending as far west as Missouri and Arkansas.

1810 Indian trade calico
ca 1810 trade calico used by William Clark as presents to Indian tribes encountered during the Westward shift. Collection of the Museum of the Fur TradeThe confluence of these two factors: America’s rise in stature and its population shift away from the influences of England, combined with the inevitable desire to build a distinct identity in the wake of the American Revolution, saw American culture move further and further from its (predominantly) British roots.

One of the shifts away from British culture in North America was a change in terminology.

When large quantities of ‘calico’ fabric began to be imported into the Americas, the fashion was for small, repeated floral patterns. Americans used the term ‘calico’ to refer to the pattern they saw on the fabric, and to this day calico, in the US, means a small, repeated floral pattern.

In England, on the other hand, the term ‘calico’ was used to refer to the cheap plain weave white or cream fabric which was then painted or printed with patterns, initially chintz, but later small floral repeats. As white backgrounds became more and more uncommon, the connection with a pattern was forgotten, and ‘calico’ was only used to mean cheap cotton fabric in a neutral colour, commonly used to make toiles.

In order to describe the plain cotton fabric which European’s described as ‘calico’, Americans began using the term ‘muslin’.


A posthumous portrait of Marie Antoinette in a muslin dress

And next week, I’ll tell you all about muslin.

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.

Terminology: What is calamanco?

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.

Open gown with a petticoat of quilted silk, lined with calamanco, mid-late 18th century, Liverpool Museum

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.

Quilted petticoat, 1770-1780s, silk satin with cream calamanco lining, Augusta Auctions

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.

Calamanco quilt, New England, 1775-1800, Wool, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

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

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