On Chintz: A Conversation with Rosemary Crill

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

To coincide with its current exhibition, Chintz Appliqué: From Imitation to Icon, the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Nebraska (IQSC) recently invited Rosemary Crill, senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum and author of the new book, Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West (V&A Publishing, 2008), to speak on the history of this fascinating fabric. Crill surprised the audience by declaring that none of the quilts in the exhibition were in fact of chintz—the word historically defined as the hand printed, mordant- and resist-dyed patterned Indian cotton cloth, not the industrially produced textiles produced in England that are more commonly known today. To clarify this and other aspects of the history of chintz, Crill answered some of my questions after her talk:

In the author’s note in your new book, you state that it is an update of Origins of Chintz, John Irwin and Katherine Brett’s seminal book from 1970. Why did you think this was the time for an amendment to the history of chintz?

Origins is still the bible of chintz history, however it is out of print, and the pictures are in black and white. It needed an update, and it also gave us the opportunity to reproduce several garments in full, not just as details.

The subtitle of your book is “Indian Textiles for the West.” Chintz seems the quintessential English pattern.  Can you clarify the connection?

Eighteenth-century English spice merchants found Indian chintz to be a valuable trade commodity. Saving some for themselves, they discovered an even greater market at home. The bright, colorfast, and exotic patterns as well as the incredible cotton fabric itself (which was new to the West) were instantly in demand for home furnishings, and later, for clothing.

How did chintz made for the Western market differ from that used in India or Asia? What designs or colors were more popular?

Soon after chintz was introduced to Europe, orders were dispatched to India for new patterns quite different from those found on the original fabric that included heraldic designs, English flowers and birds, and swags.

The well-known image of Madame de Pompadour in her dressing gown reproduced in your book portrays chintz as the height of 18th century chic. Could you speak about the use of chintz fabrics for garments, and what it meant or symbolized?

When chintz was first brought from India to England (and Europe) it was used for wall and bed hangings (Samuel Pepys ordered some for his wife). When worn out, the fabric was given to servants to use for clothing, but the allure of comfortable cotton and the beauty of the designs, quickly beguiled all strata of society. Upperclass women, and some men, first used chintzes as linings, then for stylish clothing. (Chintz created for this purpose featured smaller, flower-sprigged patterns.) This led some, like Daniel Defoe, to protest over “persons of quality dress’d in Indian carpets.”

Madame de Pompadour courted controversy while alive and continues to do so today. The dress she is wearing in the painting by François-Hubert Drouais is argued by some to be of painted silk and by others to be chintz. I believe it is chintz.  We know that she owned chintz, but have no extant dresses or records.

In your book you describe bans on chintz that caused rather serious violence-with ladies literally having the clothes ripped off their backs. Why was the backlash against these imported textiles so extreme?

These people were fighting for their livelihoods. The clamor for Indian chintz threatened England’s local wool and silk industries and led to chintz being outlawed on numerous occasions—a law in 1701 forbidding the import of Indian-dyed or printed cotton or silk except for re-export, and in 1721 a ban on the use of chintz (which remained in effect until 1774). In one headline confrontation, the fashionable London actor David Garrick and his wife had their chintz bed hangings confiscated by customs. Eventually, the demand fueled the invention of commercial roller printing of the now familiar English chintz.

The IQSC exhibition features American chintz appliqué quilts. Could you explain their origins?

The exhibition displays masterpiece American quilts made from imported English chintz, which are distinguished by their beautiful designs, technical skills, large size, and historic value. It is thought that such quilts were made by well-to-do ladies as a leisure activity or as part of an aesthetic education. When they were made, the quilts were probably laid on a bed—the principal bedroom was often a “showroom” of a family’s wealth and taste.

Images from above: Cover of Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West; Caraco and pettocoat, India (fabric) and England (tailored), c. 1770-1780. Detail of a chintz palampore, India, c. 1750-1775. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum; Madame de Pompadour by François-Hubert Drouais, 1764. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London; Palampore sent to David Garrick and his wife, India, c. 1770. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum; Medallion quilt, probably made by Jane Knox Bitzel, probably made in Tarrytown, Maryland, 1820-1840. Courtesy of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum.