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India's Textile History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Indian textiles are some of the oldest internationally exported products in the world. In this lesson, we'll talk about that history and explore what the textile industry means to India today.

Indian Textiles

India is home to about 1.2 billion people and some of the major production centers in the world. There's a good chance that you can find products somewhere in your home that say made in India. As it turns out, people of the ancient world could have done the same thing. India is home to some of the oldest continually-inhabited urban centers in the world and due to its location between Africa, Europe, and East Asia, it's been a major contributor to international trade and culture for millennia. One major area of influence has been in textiles, which are cloths or fabrics. Indian textiles are some of the oldest trade items in the world, contributing a soft splash of color to the history of global economies and interactions.

Materials

So, what defines Indian textiles? One thing we need to look at is material. Indian textiles are generally produced from one of three materials. Cheaper and more accessible textiles were historically made of cotton, which grows in central and northeastern India. Wool is used in many textiles as well, traditionally spun from the fleece of mountain goats. The finest of this fleece is woven into a soft fabric called pashmina, known around the world as cashmere. Finally, many Indian textiles, famously including scarves, are made of silk. While India has imported Chinese silk at various times in history, the nation does have a native population of silk moths which produce a slightly different type of silk. These three materials have been spun and woven across Indian history into possibly millions of garments, wall hanging decorations, and accessories.

17th-century pashmina rug
Pashmina

However, when we're talking about Indian textiles, we also can't ignore the importance of dyes. Bright, vibrant, and defined colors have been one of the defining traits of Indian textiles since roughly the 2nd millennium BCE. While India naturally produces a variety of dyes, including indigo, most notable may be the madder dye, which is created from the root of a climbing plant called chay that is grown in soil enriched with calcium by crushed seashells. It produces a vibrant, almost glowing red color common in many Indian textiles. These dyes, as well as Indian silks, cotton, and wool, have been sold into global markets as raw ingredients for other textile producers for millennia as well.

Brightly dyed silk threads
Silks

Techniques

Indian textiles are largely defined by their bright colors, which don't tend to fade over time. Part of this is the quality of the dyes, but another part is the technique. Indian textile producers use a chemical additive called a mordant which helps the dye stick to the fabric. Mordants applied in various patterns create a washed design, with the dye appearing more vibrantly on the sections with mordant and less vibrant on areas without.

Mordants help increase the ability of dye to stick to the fabric, but batik dying does the opposite. In this process, a wax or mud brick is used to stamp designs onto the fabric, which the dye cannot penetrate as well. The entire fabric is then submerged in dye, creating patterns as the dye adheres to different sections in different ways thanks to the use of a mordant or batik.

These are only a few of the many techniques developed by Indian artists over the years. Some artists use wax, others apply dye in layers, and of course many use embroidery to create a finished and complex product.

A variety of techniques are used to create the vibrant and complex textiles of India
Textile

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