Author: Sylvia Houghteling

September is New York Textile Month! In celebration, members of the Textile Society of America will author Object of the Day for the month. A non-profit professional organization of scholars, educators, and artists in the field of textiles, TSA provides an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide.

This eighteenth-century petticoat, discovered in the Netherlands, bears on its brilliant red and blue folds the story of Europe’s fascination with painted cotton textiles from India. Known in the eighteenth century as “chintz,” or “calico” in English, and as “sits” in Dutch, the textile from which this petticoat was sewn has retained both its color and its subtle wax glaze over the span of three hundred years.

Skilled dyers and painters who worked in Dutch factories along the southeastern Coromandel Coast of India created this fabric in the first half of the eighteenth century. Using a sharp-tipped bamboo pen, the cloth painters rendered thin, scrolling foliage that was dyed red with the madder- or chay-root dye. The fabric was given over to the indigo-dyer, who blocked out all of the portions that were not intended to be blue with a wax or mud resist (the vast majority of the petticoat!), and then dipped the fabric in an indigo dye-bath. The textile was then given to a bleacher who used dung and lemon or lime to create a special kind of bleach (far different from our own chlorine bleach) that, after the cloth was exposed to a week’s worth of sunlight, made the white sections of the skirt brighter, while also heightening the vibrancy of the petticoat’s crimson, indigo, and violet colors. Finally, a glazer covered the surface of the cotton with wax and burnished it with a stone in order to give the fabric its subtle sheen[1]. After all of the effort that went into fabricating the petticoat cloth, it would have been a shame to hide the wild floral patterns bursting along the border of the petticoat. Fortunately, European women’s fashions at this time revealed the bottom section of a lady’s petticoats[2].

It can be difficult to imagine the people who once made and wore these colorful garments. As we celebrate the textiles of New York City, it might help us to realize that chintz petticoats were also worn on the streets of New Amsterdam, or Dutch New York. The seventeenth-century inventory records of a shop kept by the barber-surgeon, Jacob de Lange, list “calico” among its offerings, in addition to silk, fringe, buckles and spectacles[3]. The 1696 records of Margrieta van Varick’s textile shop in Flatbush, Brooklyn also include “colored calicoes” from India[4]. Peeking out from beneath a long jacket, a petticoat like this one could likely be seen rustling through the crowds of early New York.

Sylvia Houghteling is an assistant professor in the Department of History of Art at Bryn Mawr College.

[1] Mattiebelle Gittinger, Master Dyers to the World: Technique and Trade in Early Indian Dyed Cotton Textiles (Washington, DC: Textile Museum, 1982). See also Sylvia Houghteling, “From Foot-cloth to Petticoat: The British Uses of Indian Chintz ca. 1700” in Setting the Scene:European Painted Cloths 1400 – 2000, Christina Young and Nicola Costaras, eds. (London: Archetype Books, 2013): 51-57.
[2] Amelia Peck, ed. Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013), 237-241.
[3] Esther Singleton, Dutch New York (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1909), 57.
[4] Deborah Krohn, Peter N. Miller, and Marybeth De Filippis, eds. Dutch New York Between East and West: The World of Margrieta Van Varick (New York: Bard Graduate Center, Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, 2009), 342-362.

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