There is a city in the southern Indian state of Kerala known as Kozhikode in the local Malayalam language. Colonised successively by the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British, it is also perhaps better known outside India by its English name Calicut and is the place that gave its name to a variety of cotton known as calico. Calico is a fabric designed from unbleached cotton, using a plain weave and a low thread count.
Although calico is not as heavy or dense as denim or canvas, for instance, it is still a relatively inexpensive fabric because of its unfinished and undyed appearance. Nowadays, calico is defined in the UK, Australia and New Zealand as a simple, plain weave fabric in white, cream or unbleached cotton. However, in the USA it refers to a cotton fabric with a small, all-over floral print. First developed as early as the 11th century, by the 17th century calico was an important commodity traded between India, Egypt and Europe and it was originally imported into Britain by the East India Company.
Before the cloth was printed it was bleached by sunlight in ditches filled with water. First it was immersed in an alkaline solution made from wood ashes, and then in sour milk. It was then washed and laid out on grassland. This was a slow process and took many months to complete; not until the mid-1750s was the bleaching time greatly reduced by using dilute sulphuric acid. By the end of the century chlorine made new methods of mass-production possible. The early calicoes were printed by hand using wood blocks, then by engraved copper plates. These produced more detailed designs, but still had to be operated by hand. Copper plates were replaced in turn by copper cylinders which enabled entire lengths of cloth to be printed much faster. At this time, the cotton mills in Lancashire were producing their own printed fabrics, so in order to protect their industry, the government only allowed plain cotton to be imported. America on the other hand, continued to import the chintzy printed cotton calico.
Europe too proved to be a big market for calico, with a preference for small patterns on a cream-coloured base rather than the heavier, darker Indian motifs of lotus flowers, pine cones and other geometric and paisley designs. Calico can be produced in a range of textures for many different uses, from fine and sheer cheesecloth and muslin gauze for the creation of dresses and saris, to coarser and stronger fabrics that can be made into curtains, wall hangings, quilts and bed-covers for example. The variety of prints found on calico also make it an ideal fabric to use for craft projects and it is popular with fashion designers who can use it for creating dummy or unfinished designs. The cotton calico acts as a rough canvas for their experiments as it saves money. It is also a sturdy fabric for all kinds of embroidery.