In the international commerce of the pre-industrial era, spices and textiles were the principal commodities. India in particular was known for the quality of its textiles, and for centuries was involved in a brisk trade with Far and Southeast Asia. European companies worked their way into this commercial nexus in the early sixteenth century. The Portuguese were the first to arrive, having discovered a sea route from Europe to the East that allowed them to avoid the heavy taxes on goods sent overland through the Middle East. The British East India Company received its charter in 1600 and the Dutch East India Company was founded two years later. These agencies bought textiles in India for silver and gold, exchanged them for spices grown in the Malay Islands, and sold the spices in Europe and Asia. Soon Indian textiles were exported directly to Europe, where they became highly fashionable. The popularity of Indian textiles is evidenced in the number of words that have made their way into English: calico, pajama, gingham, dungaree, chintz, and khaki. The luxury textiles coveted for centuries are now collected in museums, where they are often grouped and studied on the basis of their patterns of production.
Fabrics. Cotton, silk, and wool are the three materials from which textiles are woven. The cotton plant grows in many regions of India, each of which produces a different grade product. Wild silk moths native to the central and northeastern parts of the country (and different from those found in China) are the source of silk. The fleece of mountain goats raised in the cold regions of the country—Kashmir, Ladakh, and the Himalayas—is spun into wool. Pashmina (also known as cashmere) is made from the fine inner fleece of wild goats collected from the rocks and bushes on which it is shed in the summer.
Dyes. The most common colors of red, black, blue, violet, green, and yellow are obtained from plants and minerals native to the subcontinent. Indigo plants are processed and traded in the form of dried cakes that are used to create different shades of blue. Red dye is extracted from alizarin-producing plants and trees, such as the chay or the madder, and yellow from turmeric or saffron (the latter mostly for silks). Black is created by mixing indigo with an acid substance such as tannin. Green and purple can be made by layering yellow or red dyes over blue cloth. Cotton, unlike silk and wool, must be prepared to receive color. The fixative agent, known as a mordant, is a metallic oxide (usually alum and iron) that combines with the dye to bond onto the fiber.
Printing, resist dyeing, and painting. Mordants can also be used to create patterns. If the mordant is drawn or stamped with wooden blocks onto the surface of the fabric, the dye adheres only where the substance has been applied and the pattern appears after the cloth has been washed.
Resist dying, also known by the Malay term batik, works in the opposite manner, by employing substances such as wax or mud that block the adherence of a dye. After design elements are painted or stamped onto the surface of the cloth, it is immersed in a hot dye bath. The shade and depth of the color is determined by concentration of the dye, duration of the immersion, and number of dyeings. The color is revealed on contact with air.
Kalamkari, which literally means “pen-worked,” is a multistep process for creating designs. The cloth is first stiffened by being steeped in astringents and buffalo milk and then dried in the sun. The red, black, brown, and violet portions of the designs are outlined with a mordant, and the cloth is placed in a bath of alizarin. The cloth is then covered with wax, except for the parts to be dyed blue, and placed in an indigo bath. Afterwards, the wax is scraped off and the areas to be yellow or pale green are painted by hand.
Weaving and embroidery. Patterns can also be created in the process of weaving, as is done most often with silks. The term brocade refers to any type of fabric woven with a raised pattern, though usually it indicates that gold or silver thread has been used. Ikats (another Malay term) are cloths whose warp or weft threads have been bound and resist dyed; both sides of the cloth have the same color intensity. Double ikats are cloths in which both warp and weft threads have been bound and resist dyed. When the weft threads are woven onto the loom, they combine with the warp to reveal a pattern of extraordinary density and complexity. Embroidery, in which a decorative needlework pattern is sewn onto the fabric, is another specialty of India.
Carpet weaving. Little is known about carpet production before the Mughal era because no carpets survive from before the late sixteenth century, and the terms used in written sources are unclear. However, the earliest carpets woven in India were probably flat- or tapestry-woven. At some point, pile-woven carpets became more popular, some say with the influence of Persian weavers. Cotton and silk are most commonly used for the foundation of the carpet and wool or silk for the pile, pashmina wool for the finest ones.
Sardar, Marika. “Indian Textiles: Trade and Production.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/intx/hd_intx.htm (October 2003)
Guy, John. Woven Cargoes: Indian Textiles in the East. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1998.
Kumar, Ritu. Costumes and Textiles of Royal India. London: Christie's Books, 1999.