Learn the Basics

What is Calico, and is it the Most Versatile Fabric in the World?

What is Calico?

Although you may not notice it, Calico is everywhere, often serving as a neutral base for creativity. Artists canvases, fashion designers’ mock-up dresses, curtains, pillow cases, furnishings and bags are just a few of an endless amount of uses. How can one fabric be so versatile? Exactly what is Calico, and why has it been one of the go-to fabrics since the 11th century?

What is Calico made from?

Calico fabric is a plain-woven textile, made from half-processed and unbleached cotton fibres. It’s a coarse and rough fabric, but not as sturdy as denim or canvas for example, nor as fine as Muslin. Calico is generally very cheap due to it’s unfinished nature, and the fact that it remains un-dyed and raw.

How is Calico made?

Calico is woven from cotton fibres, and being made from cotton crops it’s completely natural. Because of its unfinished state, there are often flecks of cotton seeds visible in the fabric and it tends to have a cream or grey tinged finish, making it the perfect base to be dyed or printed on. The process of making calico is essentially the same as making cotton cloth, but stopping before the cotton is fully processed. Textile mills receive raw cotton in bales and generally process them in stages to first pull the fibres into alignment, remove impurities, smooth them out, spin the fibres to strengthen them and then begin the weaving course. Calico is created using a ‘plain’ weave which sees the lengthwise yarns (the weft) passing over and under the crosswise yarns (the warp), alternating each row.

What is Calico used for?

Calico is perhaps one of the most versatile fabrics used today, with an extensive array of uses. This is since calico fabrics can include a vast variety of qualities and can range from soft and sheer, to strong and coarse.

One of the most popular ways to use calico is for designers ‘toiles’ – the mock up of a garment before it’s created with the final fabric, to experiment with a design using cheap material first. Because calico can be sturdy and durable, it’s often used for items such as bags, aprons, curtains and furnishings – items which will see daily wear and tear, but need to remain strong and withstand some abrasion and dirt. A huge amount of calico is bleached and dyed and can be used for almost every item of clothing or household items.

Calico Origins

Calico has a long and cultured history as one of the oldest materials in India, which was discovered by the British during their reign in the country. Historians have estimated that India produced around a quarter of the world’s cloth, even without industrial machines. ‘Calico’ comes from the word ‘Calicut’ which was a European name for the city of Kozhikode, in Kerala (Southwestern India). Even as early as the 12th century Calico was mentioned by the writer Hemachandra, being described as a “printed fabric with Lotus pattern”. The city of Calicut became renowned for producing this sought-after cloth, and was frequented by designers, merchants and buyers from around the world. Weavers created Calico using Sūrat cotton, which made the textile cheap and durable; much like it is today. The sturdy nature of the fabric ensured it passed the test of time and lasted centuries.

During the 15th century, calico from Indian Gujarat travelled as far as Egypt and Northern Africa, and in the 17th century trade with Europe began. It was in the 16th century that England became well aquainted with Indian calico, after seizing a Portugese ship which had the precious calico fabric on board.

The Politics of Cotton

England was unable to produce cotton due to it’s climate, yet still tried to protect their textile market against the popularity of India’s cottons and calico. Ultimately it failed, but the British textile manufacturing industry grew and began to thrive in weaving and printing cotton – despite being unable to grow it on their own land. By the mid-19th century, the weaving industries of India were fading away and British cotton goods began to replace them in world markets. This was a result of the British merchants in the East India Company gaining financial control over Indian weavers and reducing their pay, which meant many workers opted for farming jobs over weaving. Alongside this, in the early 1800s the British textile market imported cotton from the USA and invented machines to weave them quickly and cheaply, manned by low-paid factory workers. Together these factors resulted in the soaring of British calico cotton products worldwide, outselling hand woven and hand-printed cloth.

Other Variations of Unfinished Cotton

Alongside calico, there are various other fabrics created from unfinished cotton. These are some of the most popular half-processed cotton materials.

  • Muslin – a plain weave cotton fabric, but very light and fine.
  • Gauze – a very soft, fine fabric created with a very open, plain weave.
  • Canvas – a plain woven, very durable cotton fabric.
  • Cheesecloth – a loosely woven cotton which resembles gauze, and comes in seven grades from extra-fine to open weave.

Calico was originally known for being hand-printed, and finished with ornate designs. Try designing your own Calico and custom printing your original artwork for a classic look with a modern finish.



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