Around 1750, India was the world’s largest producer of cotton textiles. This was the period before the British conquest of Bengal happened. Indian textiles had been famous for fine quality and exquisite craftsmanship. Indian textiles were extensively traded in Southeast Asia and West and Central Asia. From the sixteenth century, European trading companies began to buy Indian textiles for sale in Europe.
Many words in English and other languages; in current usage; show the proof of this flourishing trade.
The word “muslin” was used to refer to all finely woven textiles. This word has originated from Mosul which is in present day Iraq. This was the place where European traders first became aware about fine cotton cloth from India. The Arab merchants used to bring find cotton cloths in Mosul.
The word “calico” was used as the generic name for all cotton textiles. The Portuguese first landed in Calicut (Kerala). The cotton textiles which they took back to Europe came to be called calico.
The word “chintz” is used for cloth with small and colourful flowery designs. It is derived from the Hindi word “chhint”.
The word “bandanna” refers to any brightly coloured and printed scarf. This has come from the Hindi word “bandhna” which means tying. This term in Hindi was used to refer to brightly coloured cloths produced through the method of tying and dying.
Similarly, many other words were used which show the popularity of Indian textiles in different parts of the world.
Calico Act: By the early eighteenth century, the wool and silk makers in England were worried by the popularity of Indian textiles. They began to protest against the import of Indian cotton textiles. In 1720, the British government banned the use of chintz in England. This Act was known as the Calico Act.
Once the government protection began, the calico printing industry was the first to grow. In this industry, Indian designs were imitated and printed on white muslin or plain unbleached Indian cloth.
New Innovations: Competition with Indian textile also forced various technical innovations in England. The Spinning Jenny was invented by John Kaye in 1764. This machine increased the productivity of traditional spindles. Steam engine was invented by Richard Arkwright in 1786. This revolutionized cotton textile weaving. With the help of these two inventions, cloth could be woven in huge quantities and at cheaper rates.
But till the end of the eighteenth century, Indian textiles continued to dominate the world market. European traders made enormous profits from this flourishing trade.
Textile Producing Regions in India: In the early nineteenth century, textile production was concentrated in four regions in India. Bengal was among the most important centres. Presence of numerous rivers and delta, made it ideal for transporting goods to distant places. It is important to remember that railway and roadways were not developed at that time.
Dacca (modern Bangladesh) was the most important textile centre in the eighteenth century. It was famous for mulmul and jamdani weaving.
A cluster of cotton weaving centre was along the Coromandel coast; which stretched from Madras to northern Andhra Pradesh. The important weaving centres along the western coast were in Gujarat.
Weavers usually belonged to communities which specialized in weaving. The skills for weaving were passed on through generations. The tanti of Bengal, the julahas and momins of north India, and the sale, kaikollar and devangs of south India are examples of some weaving communities.
Spinning was mostly done by women. The charkha and takli were traditional spinning instruments. The thread was spun on the charkha and rolled on the takli.
Weaving was usually done by men. Dyeing was done by the dyer (rangrez); who also came from a particular community. Printing was done by specialist block printers; known as chhipigars.
Handloom weaving and associated occupations provided livelihood to a large number of Indians.
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