Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Hidden Stories/Human Lives: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America 17th Biennial Symposium, October 15-17, 2020. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/

doi: 10.32873/unl.dc.tsasp.0088


Copyright © 2020 Aditi Khare


The eighteenth-century trade in calico between Europe and India was a function of global textile manufacture, exchange, and consumption on multiple levels. This trade had several political, cultural, and economic consequences— the most important of which, I suggest, was the transfer of useful knowledge from artisanal oral textile traditions in India to the receptive, commercial, and nascent cotton printing industry in Europe.

This paper explores the contribution of Indian cotton printing knowledge towards the development of Europe’s cotton industry and, consequently, its dissemination through European knowledge networks. In particular, the largely overlooked chemical knowledge pertaining to dyes and mordants responsible for the vibrant colors which gave these textiles their revered status has been analyzed in this paper. As Giorgio Riello has theorized, the trade was an apprenticeship for Europe—in design, material, technique, and taste. This apprenticeship culminated in one of the pioneering industrial sectors during the industrial revolution. What, then, was the source of the technical and material knowledge that could be codified to such an extent, and who were the hitherto hidden artisans responsible for its generation? .

The sources and methodologies used in this paper reflect the multiple paradigms and contextual factors at play. For tacit and oral knowledge collected by traders and merchants in India, trade records, travel accounts, printed cottons and their tools, as well as the dyeing samples have been researched. Furthermore, to understand the development of this knowledge into codified and prescriptive systems, recipe books, craftsmen’s manuals, patents, and instructional texts have been researched. Taking into account the agency of the Indian manufacturers, this work forces us to reassess the technical and material superiority of the European cotton industry and give due credit to the complex global knowledge networks in a more decentralized manner.