Indian textiles have a long and colourful history. From the Ajanta frescoes and the Mughal Empire to the East India Company, learn about the production of Indian textiles in the ancient and modern world.
A History of Indian Textile Production
For many centuries, India was one of the world’s most influential producers of fine cotton and silk textiles. Their textiles were prized in the ancient world for their intense colours that do not fade – the result of the mordant dyeing technique, which had been widely practised by Indian textile workers since at least the second millennium B.C.
Indian artisans produced colourful, soft and finely-woven textiles bearing the images of mythic Hindu figures and native Indian flowers that were highly sought from Africa to Northeast Asia. It is also believed that Indian textiles were heavily traded in ancient China and the Roman Empire.
But some of the oldest surviving Indian textiles include fragments of printed and painted cotton have been found in Indonesia, where these fine cotton fabrics were used in ceremonies and passed down as heirloom along with prized silk patola.
Remnants of spindles and needles found at the archeological site of Harappa in Punjab, Pakistan also suggest that the ancient artisans of the Indus River valley produced and wore embroidered clothes.
Further, the Ajanta frescoes in Maharashtra, India and various temple sculptures throughout the county offer insight into the kinds of textiles that were worn in ancient times. The wall paintings of Ajanta, in particular, depict the dancers, musicians, and Indian aristocracy wearing exquisite garments with brocade, resist dyeing, and ikat patterns.
A Lucrative Trade
The Indian textile trade and commerce to Europe, East Asia and Southeast Asia thrived for over 500 years, with India being a key player in the global textiles market throughout the 16th and 17th centuries because of their exceptionally fine cotton fabrics and distinctive design motifs. The Indian textile trade peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries with the shipment of fabrics to England.
Indian, Arab and Persian merchants supplied these textiles to the markets of Southeast Asia in exchange for spices. The British, Dutch and Portuguese traders would later dominate the trade with the arrival of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in India at the turn of the 15th century, driving even greater demand for Indian embroideries and chintz in Europe.
In 1600, the East India Company gained monopoly over the trade between England and the Far East, with the company shipping limited quantities of Indian textiles to England in the 17th century.
Distinctive Characteristics of Indian Textiles
Fabrics. Cotton was and still is the leading choice of fabric for daily use in India due to its breathable and lightweight quality, which makes the warm and humid climate in most of the country much bearable. Another favourite, silk, was reserved for religious ceremonies and formal occasions. The bulk of ancient and modern Indian textiles are made of these two fabrics.
Dyeing techniques. Indian textiles are known for the widespread use of madder dye, which gives fabrics their characteristic red colour and allows artisans to embellish the fabrics with a consistent range of patterns and motifs.
Madder is extracted from chay roots. When this herb is grown on calcium-rich soil, such as the soil near the estuaries of South India, chay root can produce an intense and vibrant red dye – a colour so stunning that it was also used in the production of chintz.
Patterns and symbols. Some of ancient India’s rulers were great lovers of flowers and plants, adding gardens to their buildings and territories as well as commissioning artists to paint flowers. Over time, the naturalistic depiction of flowers would become more stylised and make their way to Indian textiles as a decorative motif.
This motif was widely reproduced in commercial textile and would go through various changes throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as European and Chinese design influences gradually made their way to Indian textile motifs.
Another recurring motif is that of a central flowering tree rising out of a mound of rocks or a body of water surrounded by lotuses and marine life. This motif was often seen in chintz palampores (bed coverings) from the 18th century. This flowering tree is often flanked by birds while the larger design usually features an undulating border of stylised flowers and leaves. Franklin Hobart offers a wide selection of home wares inspired by travel and exploration. Browse our collection of boho-style housewares and furniture today.