If you downloaded my new e-book What is Grandmillennial Style?, then you already know just how popular chintz fabrics are becoming again, particularly for those who are decorating in the grandmillennial style. (And if you didn’t get the e-book, grab it now — it’s FREE!)
Chintz fabrics go way back to 16th century India where they were first invented by using painted on designs, resist-printing (which is like batik or any form of printing where some of the fabric is blocked from being penetrated by the dye), and wood-block printing. All of this was obviously painstakingly done by hand. Often multiple inkings were employed to layer on different colors.
The word “chintz” came from the Hindi word chīnt which is most often translated as “spotted.” But really, the first chintzes weren’t really what we would call spotted, so it’s a strange translation. I like “variegated” better because it simply suggests multiple hues, and variations of tone, rather than spotted, which sounds more like polka dots.
Most of the examples of chintz from that era were more small resist florals, large expressive florals, and even animal motifs along with elaborate scrolls, paisleys, and other decorative patterning that we still see today as examples of “Indienne” style cloth.
India was way ahead of most of the world when it came to their dyes, too, as well as the mordants, or fixatives, that helped those dye stay “fast” — in other words, not to run or fade too much, if at all, with use or washing.
The world quickly became covetous, and jealous of these beautiful, richly colored fabrics.
Once chintz was “discovered” by English and Western traders visiting India and exported back home, it was a total boom. First embraced as a decorator fabric — for bed coverings, upholstery, drapes and more — chintz was soon incorporated into women’s jackets, skirts, and dresses, along with men’s waistcoats. This was for more prosperous people since, at that time, imported printed cotton was more expensive than more domestically produced clothing materials like linen and wool.
I’ve been making my own 18th- and 19th-century historic reproduction dresses for a few years now, and I really fell in love with the printed textiles of that era, all directly influenced by this chintz/Indienne phenomenon that began a few centuries earlier.
And now I’m gaga over using them in upholstery projects, too! Some of my favorite decorator fabric companies have loads of chintzes to choose from, whether in vintage pieces like I sell, or available from interior designers who rep the big fabric houses.
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However…in America we’ve sort of lazily come to think of chintz in a very different way. Most Americans conjure up the image of a large, expressive central floral, almost like a still life, on a light- to heavily-glazed cotton, as used in big and bold decorator fabrics, often for pillows, like the pillow seen here:
Or we think of a print that densely covers a whole fabric, like a calico. Chintzware in porcelain is often understood as a pattern replete across every inch of the piece, and it often looks like the calico style fabrics of the 19th century.
All of this is why I say in my grandmillennial design e-book, “prints, prints, prints, we love chintz!” Americans often understand chintz this way — as big florals, or as calicos.
It’s not that this is wrong per se, as chintz is a printed fabric. It’s just that it’s such a small part of a much bigger, much older story.
Wheeling back to the historic origins, however, you can really expand your sense of chintz by looking to the original examples, appreciating in the wide variety of gorgeous designs just another amazing thing that India contributed to the world. And these prints were not only produced on fabric, but also on wallpapers and end papers for books, and used as box or trunk liners.
Check out the Victoria and Albert Museum for some blog posts about the historic origins of chintz:
- “Introduction to Indian Textiles”
- “Renuka Reddy’s Adventures in Chintz”
- “Indian Chintz: A Legacy of Luxury”
or see this fab 18th century gown as one extant example of utterly gorgeous chintz dresses.
The blog IdeaFlows has a great post on Indienne chintz that’s a pretty quick read with a breadth of information. And the Textile Forum Blog also gives an overview: “Chintz: Cotton in Bloom.”
And for eye candy galore, see the Heritage Lab exhibition How Indian Printed and Painted (chintz) Textiles Changed the World.
At Lady Virginia Vintage we carry a variety of rotating chintzes and Indiennes, some lightly coated, some not. Given that we deal exclusively in antique and vintage fabrics, only seldom can we get the same piece once it’s sold. So, if you see one you love, best to grab it before it’s gone.
Have fun decorating in chintz, whether with delicate and expressive old-world Indienne designs, or in the modern Americanized version with large florals and busy prints with glazing. Because beautiful designs like these in your home is a decidedly wonderful thing!
— Lindsay Curren, Lady Virginia Vintage