Palampore (detail), 18th Century. Cotton, paint, dye; 9 ft. 4 1/2 in. x 88 1/2 in. (285.8 x 224.8 cm)
In the eighteenth century, laws protecting the English textile industry prohibited residents of the British Isles from purchasing the sumptuous Chinese silks and bright, intricately patterned Indian cottons imported by the English East India Company. These exotic textiles could, however, be legally re-exported to other regions and thus found an enthusiastic market in the American colonies. Ironically, the English had to dress in domestically produced imitations of Asian textiles, but colonists from Boston to Barbados could sport the real thing. Readily available in both large city shops and small country stores, these so-called East India Goods also served as an important source of inspiration for decorative textiles made in North America.
In 1783, at the close of the American Revolution, merchants of the newly formed United States funded locally built ships in order to begin trading directly with China and India. American engagement with the Asian trade was relatively short lived. The demand for imported Indian chintzes and muslins dwindled when the South began to produce huge amounts of cotton after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803; there soon followed the rise of large mechanized mills in the North that turned the raw cotton into cloth. Chinese woven silks continued to be imported until the mid-nineteenth century, when American mills finally succeeded in weaving high-quality silk yardage. North American demand for Indian and Chinese textiles would not be reawakened until the renewed global economy of today.