I had the idea to make a chintz-inspired dress shirt for my partner a week or so before his birthday in August. Sometimes when I have an idea for something I want to make, I can see it so clearly in my mind and I take that to be a very good sign. I knew it was going to be great, I could see it. It was just a matter of bringing it to life.
I’ve been fascinated with historical naturally dyed chintz fabrics since being introduced to the process at a workshop with Graham Keegan in 2019. Though in modern times chintz has taken on a connotation of being cheap or cheesy (think “chintzy”), chintz fabrics were once hugely laborious and expensive works of art. The printed and painted cotton cloth was produced in various parts of India and Pakistan, but the southeastern Coromandel coast of Andhra Pradesh was best known for making the highest quality chintzes. Though now it is associated with brightly colored floral patterns, chintz (possibly from the Hindi “chint” meaning “spotted” or “speckled”) simply refers to a fabric that is printed or painted with mordants and resists and dyed to create a pattern. Chintz cloth was also glazed (polished) to a smooth, shiny finish.
The fabric made its way to European markets in the 16th and 17th centuries and became extremely popular with those who could afford it; first being used as curtains and bedcovers, and eventually made into clothing as well. Though the whimsical, flowing floral prints preferred by the western market are still most commonly associated with chintz, other patterns and styles were created in India for markets around the world, including the Middle East, Egypt, Indonesia, and China and Japan. In the mid 17th century chintz became popular in European fashion, first being made into clothing by working class women from cast off furnishing fabrics. It soon became immensely popular with men and women of all most social classes in Europe, and the demand rose such that European textile producers protested and Indian chintz was banned in France from 1686 and 1759, and partially banned in England from 1700 to 1774.1
In the 1700s European textile manufactures tried to imitate the bright and brilliant patterns of Indian chintz with not much luck (though they did come up with several new innovations that aided in launching the Industrial Revolution). Their lackluster imitations are likely how “chintzy”, a term first coined by novelist George Eliot, came to denote “low quality”. So how was the real stuff made if other master dyers of the time couldn’t figure it out? Perhaps some techniques have been lost to history, but we know the general process.
First, the plain weave cotton was sun bleached with cow's dung to create a clear canvas, then treated and dried with myrobalan (Terminalia chebula), a tannin-rich fruit, and buffalo milk. The fat in the milk acts as a size for the fabric, keeping the mordants from bleeding; it also, in my experience using cow’s milk, makes the finished fabric smell delicious. A mixture of fermented iron, jaggery (raw cane and palm sugar), and water would be applied by block printing, painting, or drawing with a kalam (or pen made from a thin piece of wood) to create black lines. The highest quality chintz patterns are known for their extremely fine white lines, which are created at this stage by applying wax. Mordants would then be brushed or printed over the wax and, after setting the mordants, the cloth would be immersed in a red dye vat (the dye most often used was chay, Oldenlandia umbellata, a madder relative).
After rounds of washing with dung (enzymes in the dung bind to excess dyes and mordants to clear the fabric) and sun bleaching, wax would be applied again to the textile, to reserve any area of the cloth not intended for the indigo vat. Once the indigo was applied, the wax would be boiled off, the textile would be cleaned again, and additional mordants would be applied for the last dye vat: yellow. In the final stage, the thoroughly cleaned cloth would be polished to a shiny finish in a process known as glazing. Clearly an extremely laborious and resource-intensive process, making a finished piece of chintz fabric could take months.
For my design, I hand-drew the image using contrasting colors for the various shades of red, purple, and black which would each become a separate screen. This made it easier to scan and edit the layers on the computer before printing screen printing films.
While I was prepared to spend some time designing and dyeing the cloth, I decided to take some modern short cuts for my project. For one, I used screen printing techniques to print mordant pastes to achieve various shades of red, purple, and black. I do all my screen preparation and burning in a shed in my backyard which, if you’re familiar with screen printing, is a whole process in itself. Once I had these five screens ready to print, I prepared the scoured fabric (a fine pima cotton) by soaking in a lightly heated bath of sumac leaves, my preferred local tannin source.
Once sufficiently tannined and dried, I screenprinted the black lines with an iron mordant. Iron reacts with the tannic acid from the sumac leaf bath to form a ferrous tannate complex that binds within the fiber, this creates the dark lines. Though I’ve used cow’s milk in the past to coat the fabric and prevent the iron from bleeding, I decided I didn’t need it in this case as this particular fabric is very finely woven. I added some extra guar gum thickener to my iron paste, which helped prevent bleeding as well. Once the black lines were printed they needed to be fixed in a “dung” bath, in this case I used calcium carbonate and wheat bran to imitate the traditional cow's dung. Though I’ve read that fabrics pre-treated with tannin and printed with iron do not need the extra step of the dung bath before dyeing, this has not been my experience. I think at least they should be thoroughly rinsed, as excess iron can become adhered to other areas of the fabric. I then put the pieces back into a sumac leaf bath briefly. This double tannin bath seems to really make the dark lines pop, locking in the ferrous tannate complexes.
The alum mordants were then printed in three layers, the bright red layer being a 10% alum acetate solution, the light red being a ~2% alum acetate solution, and the purpley red a 90% alum, 10% iron mixture using the “full strength” alum and iron solutions (10% and 2% respectively). To learn more about mordants, see my previous blog post here. As I haven’t worked much with wax resist and I know that would be a whole study in itself, I opted to use a citric acid paste (I simply use thickened lemon juice) to remove bits of the alum mordant in an, admittedly crude, imitation of the fine white lines of chintz patterns. The textile then gets set again in the dung bath, and dyed in a madder bath. As my homegrown madder is still maturing, I use ground madder root (Rubia tinctorum) from Botanical Colors. The fabric remains in the just-below-simmering madder bath for about an hour as the colors develop, and then is rinsed and dipped into a bath of wheat bran, calcium carbonate, and a bit of tannic acid to rinse residual dyes from the background. This method is quite effective!
After the madder bath and subsequent cleaning, I had a printed pattern in black and three shades of red to purple. I decided to add indigo, Maya blue, and madder lake pigments with a brush using fresh soy milk as a binder. Though these painted pigments will not be as tenaciously washfast as the dyed portion, this option gave me much greater control over the placement of the indigo. I also decided not to add any yellows to the pattern or to “glaze” the fabric which sounds like it could either involve heavy machinery or lots of manual labor.
I am really pleased with the results, though it’s far from the intricate precision of historical chintz fabrics. In my research I’ve found an Indian artist attempting to recreate historical chintz fabrics with natural dyes. Though there isn’t much information on Renuka Reddy’s website, this article contained some great photos with a bit more detail.
While printing and dyeing with plants has become my comfort zone, the next step of this project was the most daunting. I put off sewing the shirt for a month or so, telling myself the fabric needed to cure and dreading sitting down to piece it all together. I’m still just learning my way around a sewing machine. When it comes to creative expression I generally work with a solid balance of planning ahead and pure spontaneity, and because I don’t have enough experience yet to break all the rules, machine sewing can feel a bit rigid. Recently, though, my interest in making wearable, three-dimensional pieces has overwhelmed my reluctance to slog through the learning process.
As you can tell from the previous photos, I had made the bold decision to cut the pattern pieces before printing and dyeing. I drafted the pattern and cut the pieces using this guide. For someone who has never actually followed a pattern before, drafting my own took awhile, but I definitely recommend these resources! Finally, and through a fair amount of trial and error, I pieced together the pattern pieces using the instructions here. I also used a shirt that I knew fit him well as a reference as I sewed. This was very helpful. Still, not everything fit together perfectly! I had made some mistakes with the arm holes (still not sure how to use a French curve...) and needed to make some last minute adjustments, but overall I was immensely thrilled, and a bit shocked, when the final product actually fit! I also discovered some of the amazing details of fitted dress shirts that I'd previously overlooked, such as the practical and adorable sleeve plackets!