Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cotton, Cowboys and Indians

 When you think of the Old West, what fabrics immediately come to mind?

For me, there are two: denim and calico. It's true, cowboys were as likely to wear canvas or twill pants before Levis Strauss and Jacob Davis invented riveted jeans in 1873, but printed calico staked its claim in American fashions long before that. And both cotton fabrics have a long history before they became associated with the Old West.

Cotton has been cultivated and woven for at least 7,000 years in the Indus Valley (Pakistan) and Mexico. India developed a vital textile industry based on cotton. Through them, calico and muslin was introduced to Europe.

Calico and muslin have a simple weave. Muslin uses bleached cotton and is a more finished product. Calico is unbleached and rougher in texture. Typically, it would be dyed or printed in bright colors. Chintz is calico cloth that has been printed and finished. These printed fabrics were exported to Europe and highly popular with everyone not connected to the wool trade. Since the wool industry had more clout than fashion consumers, trade sanctions protected the wool trade until English and French mills could print the cotton cloth more cheaply than the Indians.
Unlike the larger, bolder floral prints that we associate with chintz and Indian calico, English calico used smaller, denser patterns. It was the Lancashire printed calico that went to America. There, the printed calico was so common that the term "calico" came to mean the print not the cloth.

Natural calico (known as grey cloth in the trade) became known as muslin in America. What the English called muslin became finished muslin.

The devolution of the Indian textile industry by English and French trade sanctions, was capped off by American ingenuity. With the invention of the cotton gin by Ely Whitney, British, French and American mills could produce cheap cotton cloth and no longer relied on importing Indian calico and muslin.

Calico and muslin are simple weaves. There are others. Twill is a weave where pattern of diagonal parallel lines is created by "by passing the weft thread over one or more warp threads and then under two or more warp threads and so on, with a "step" or offset between rows to create the characteristic diagonal pattern." (Wikipedia) Serge is a specific pattern of twill which is very durable.

Using worsted (the type of wool most used for weaving cloth), serge is used for overcoats and uniforms. Serge de Nimes, developed in Nimes, France, used cotton. De Nimes became anglicized to demin, a sturdy, hard-working cloth. Produced in American mills, it was the choice of Levis Strauss and his partner when they produced their new work pants. The cloth had been around, however, since the eighteenth century.

Jean, which takes it's name from Genoa (in French "Gene") is the same fabric and may be older than its French counterpart. Seventeenth century artwork has come to light showing common folk wearing clothes made of blue jean. (London Telegraph) Like our blue jeans, the cloth shows the indigo warp threads on the outside and the white weft threads on the inside.

Both calico and jeans are cotton fabrics, and both terms have evolved to mean more than material. Calico has come to mean the pattern, wherever it is used, as well as lending itself to calico cats and being used as a euphemism for women. Jeans are used to designate the pants made out of jean or denim. (However, denim jeans is a phrase that should be avoided.) Most of all (at least on this blog) they share a common bond in their connection to cowboys and their gals.

Wikipedia entries for Calico, Muslin, Worsted, Twill, Serge, Denim


Lyn Horner said...

Wow, Alison, I wish I'd had this info when I wrote my first book. What a wonderful resource! I'll be keeping it, that for sure. Thanks for sharing your research on fabrics.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I'm just glad I have this blog to share stuff like this. Otherwise, I'd feel like a nut for looking up all this information when I only wanted to know if calico was around during the American Civil War. :)

Unknown said...

Aha, that must be why I was chastised for saying my hero wore "denims." I discovered through that comment that most cowboys didn't wear least not the in era I write about.

Very interesting post, Alison, but then you never disappoint.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Thanks Ginger. You could always say it was a typo and they were wearing jean (a cloth that has been commonly used since the 1750s) not jeans.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Nice post, Alison. Calico dresses and shirts certainly were associated with the west, as well as denim. In fact, they still are, aren't they?

Meg said...

WOW - great post, Alison! I knew some of this stuff but not all. Awesome sources. I'm pretty specific when it comes to the women's clothing, but less specific with men. They don't care. LOL Like now, pants are pants.

Paty Jager said...

Wonderful information about the fabrics that kept people clothed.