Cloth Cultures – Cotton

In the Cloth Cultures exhibition, fashion historian Amber Butchart explores movement, migration and making through cloth, using pieces found in the Gawthorpe Textiles Collection, to tell the stories behind what we wear. Focussing on four fabrics – silk, linen, wool and cotton – she investigates the global strands of local stories that link Lancashire, at the heart of the textile industry in Britain, to areas throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

The original physical exhibition at the Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington was part of the 2019 British Textile Biennial and these digital highlights showcase some of the key themes from the original exhibition. To discover more, listen to the Cloth Cultures podcast, where Amber speaks to artists, historians, makers, and scientists to shed light on our textile history.


The fabric that is most closely associated with Lancashire is undoubtedly cotton. Evidence of the Industrial Revolution is all around us, including where we are now: Haworth Art Gallery, a former mill owner’s house. From the 18th century, mills were built across the county as the process of spinning and weaving cotton was mechanised: first water-powered, then steam, fuelled by the local coalfields. This grew to become the largest cotton industry the world had seen. Many of the key figures of industrialisation were from the historic county of Lancashire, including John Kay (flying shuttle, Walmersley), James Hargreaves (spinning jenny, Oswaldtwistle), Richard Arkwright (water frame, Preston) and Samuel Crompton (spinning mule, Bolton).

But what was happening here in Lancashire had global consequences. The cotton plantations of the American South, harvested by enslaved labourers forcibly taken from Africa, provided the raw material that fuelled the Industrial Revolution in Britain, creating huge amounts of wealth for both slave owners and factory owners. The legacy of this is all around us from country houses to art galleries and public statues. Before this, cotton was a crucial commodity shipped between Britain and India, especially beautifully painted and printed chintzes. After slavery was abolished, cotton continued to play a key role in commerce and colonialism around the globe.

Listen to the first part focusing on cotton from the Cloth Cultures podcast series.

Listen to the second part focusing on cotton from the Cloth Cultures podcast series.

Chintz fabric – printed or painted stylised florals on cotton, has become associated with traditional English country house style, but its origins are thoroughly international. Chintz was the product of Indian handcrafts, where knowledge of dyes was much more sophisticated than techniques in Europe. Early traders asked chintz makers to modify their designs to suit European tastes – which took inspiration from Chinese and Japanese textiles too.  

This was a time when global exploration from Europe was increasing, with violent consequences. Glazed cotton chintz became hugely fashionable in countries such as Britain and the Netherlands throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The East India Company, certified in 1600 by a Royal Charter from Elizabeth I, was the driving force behind this: first through trade, and then by setting up their own factories throughout India.  

We can draw a thread from the East India Company directly to the formation of the British Raj: colonial rule in India that was established in the middle of the 19th century. Cotton then became a major factor in the drive for Indian independence through the Swadeshi movement. 

Date: c.1780 – 1800
Origin: India
Dimensions: Length 91cm, hem circumference 307cm

Chintz cotton skirt made in India for the European market. Hand block printed and painted on calico using madder and indigo dyes.

Throughout the 18th century Indian produced chintz fabrics became hugely popular in Britain and Europe. Indian manufacturers quickly began producing cloth specifically for export and carefully blended Indian and European motifs and patterns for maximum appeal to the European market. Colourful backgrounds were popular in continental Europe, while the British market seems to have preferred fabrics with a light cream or off white background such as this one.

Date: c.1880
Origin: India or Iran
Dimensions: H 93cm x W 91cm

The design of the fabric borrows elements of both chintz and the Kalamkari textiles produced in Isfahan, Iran and the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. The panel is backed with a delicate roller printed fabric with a much more European style floral print showing how the two styles could be combined to create goods that would appeal in the European market. The smooth, glazed finish of the fabric remains intact, which suggests that the item has not been used much.

Date: c.1860
Origin: India or Persia
Dimensions: H 108cm x W 101cm

Cloths such as these might have been produced in India or Persia for the local market and used as mats, table coverings or wall hangings to decorate the home. They were also made for the European export market and Indian fabrics were especially popular in Britain, France and the Netherlands during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Date: c.1890
Origin: England
Dimensions: H 130.9cm x W 65cm

This commercial sample still has an unknown manufacturer’s label attached to the top edge, along with three swatches showing the same design on different coloured backgrounds. The complex and stylised floral pattern borrows heavily from Indian chintz designs but uses a colour palette more contemporary to the late 19th century; incorporating a lot more green and yellow than the original red and blue centric colour palettes.

The pattern has been created with a combination of printing, most likely roller printing, along with some painting. The overall effect is intended to imitate the earlier hand blocked and painted chintzes.

The Arts & Crafts movement in Britain showed the tension between the agricultural past and industrial present. It developed throughout the 19th century as a backlash to the industrialisation of art and design, championing handcrafts and imagery inspired by the natural world, as well as folk art and medieval methods and symbolism. While some key voices in the movement such as William Morris railed against factory-made products, others such as Lewis Foreman Day were happy to create designs for industrial use, believing they should be affordable to all. The Arts & Crafts textiles in the Gawthorpe collection show that inspiration was also drawn from design from around the world.

Date: c.1870 – 1900
Origin: Great Britain
Dimensions: H 39cm x W 92cm

In his book, Some Principles of Everyday Art, republished in 1890, Lewis Foreman Day wrote, “Of modern ornament the most perfect is that which is not modern, that is to say, such Indian, Persian, Japanese or other Eastern art, as is traditional, and has changed little or not at all for centuries.” This gives a false sense of permanence to design from non-European countries, which in reality were also subject to change due to developments in technology, taste, fashion, and influence from other cultures. But it also illustrates the intense interest in Asian design throughout the Arts & Crafts movement. This sample of cretonne curtain weight fabric, designed by Lewis Foreman Day for Lancashire-based printers Turnbull and Stockdale, shows his keen interest in Indian chintz. 

Date: c.1878
Origin: Great Britain
Dimensions: H 17.5cm x W 77cm

Lightweight cotton furnishing fabric called ‘Salangore’, designed by Thomas Wardle for Liberty. The Victoria & Albert Museum has a sample of this design in blue, printed onto tussah silk hand-woven in India, which was exhibited in the British India Pavilion of the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878. One of six Indian-inspired patterns at the exhibition, it showed the continuing influence of Indian design in Britain throughout the 19th century, as well as the place of stores like Liberty in popularising these designs.

Date: c.1891 – 1895
Origin: Great Britain
Dimensions: H 56cm x W 68cm

In this furnishing fabric, earlier chintz designs have developed into styles associated with the Art Nouveau movement of the end of the 19th century, which also celebrated natural forms. 

Turkey red was an expensive and complicated process of dying fabric to create a vibrant, bright red which did not fade over time. Before the creation of synthetic dyes in the mid 19th century, the process could take weeks, and involved unappealing ingredients such as sheep’s dung and rancid olive oil. It was created around Manchester from the late 18th century, and was used for the lucrative export market as well as for domestic sales. At the 1851 ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ in London, F. Steiner and Co, of Accrington, exhibited machine-printed Turkey red velvets. In the collection at Gawthorpe we can see some of the fashionable applications of Turkey red, as well as the influence of fabrics such as Indian chintz and Persian motifs. 

Date: c.1850 – 1870
Origin: Great Britain
Dimensions: H 136cm x W 75cm

This piece of roller printed cotton has a stylised floral pattern with a slight paisley influence, seen especially in the small patterns used as fillings for larger shapes. The small scale of the printed pattern and light-weight cotton fabric indicate this was probably intended for use as a dress fabric, although this length appears to be unused.

The vivid colours and crisp details would have required precision and expertise to create and are a testament to the skill of the workers as well as the advances in printing and dyeing that were continuously evolving throughout the 19th century as manufacturers sought to create ever more fashionable and desirable fabrics for consumers.

Date: c.1850 – 1870
Origin: Great Britain
Dimensions: H 150cm x W 80cm

This piece of Turkey Red dyed cotton has been crudely made up into a curtain with a simple drawstring along the top edge, probably not the original intended use for the fabric and more likely a way of making use of a leftover piece of dress fabric. The print used on the fabric is a good example of how the bold Turkey red dye was often combined with the paisley motif, which had developed by the mid to late 19th century into increasingly curved cone shapes filled with additional patterning. Originally a traditional Indo-Persian motif known as the boteh or buta, these cone shapes were copied from Kashmiri shawls by manufacturers in the town of Paisley in Scotland and the town’s name became synonymous with this style of pattern.

Date: Mid 19th Century (created), c.1870-1890 (altered)
Origin: Great Britain
Dimensions: H 97cm x W 96cm

A full-length petticoat made from brightly coloured printed cotton in vibrant Turkey Red, greens and yellows. The lower part of the petticoat is quilted in deep wavy bands decorated with narrow braid and each band is filled with down feathers. As well as being a lightweight but incredibly warm garment these down petticoats also had the added benefit of helping to support voluminous skirts before the invention of the crinoline in 1856. After the crinoline had been invented they were stilluseful for wearing under the crinoline to keep the legs warm.

Adire cloths are dyed with indigo using resist techniques, and they are created throughout the Yoruba regions of Nigeria. While the patterns and techniques date from much earlier, these designs proliferated from the 1920s onwards often making use of imported European cotton cloth. Some examples in the Gawthorpe collection were donated by GB Ollivant Ltd, a company set up by Captain George Bent Ollivant in Manchester in 1858, to sell cotton goods in Africa. The company became part of the United Africa Company Ltd, which itself became part of Unilever. These companies, formed through various mergers and acquisitions, were instrumental in the colonisation of various regions of the African continent, as economic power became political domination, often with violent consequences. 

Date: c.1900-1950
Origin: Ibadan, Nigeria
Dimensions: H 119cm x W 88cm

This adire cloth was produced in Ibadan, Nigeria, and uses cassava starch paste as a resist to create the pattern using indigo dye. The technique is similar to other resist techniques such as batik, but using cassava starch instead of wax. This sample is now held in the Gawthorpe Textiles Collection but was originally collected by GB Ollivant Ltd, a company set up by Captain George Bent Ollivant in Manchester in 1858, to sell cotton goods in Africa. It’s likely the company collected samples of adire like this one to inspire their own designs to sell to West Africa.



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