Why it's time to give chintz a second chance

After years in the interiors wilderness, this classic textile is making a cool comeback

Kiera Buckley-Jones

In 1996, Ikea was struggling to conquer the country. British women simply didn’t think the Swedish store’s furniture was homely. Undeterred, the brand boldly decided that, rather than adjust its products to suit its customers, it should adjust its customers instead.

The result was the infamous ‘Chuck Out Your Chintz’ television advert. Hordes of liberated women were shown tearing chintz curtains, cushions, eiderdowns and sofas from their homes, before gaily dumping them in an enormous skip. A generation on, there are signs that chintz may be making a comeback.

Japanese dress with chintz technique, India, 1700-1725
Photo Studio Noorderblik

Chintz is arguably the textile that has had the greatest impact on human history. A cotton textile originating from the Indus valley between India and Pakistan some 4,000 years ago, chintzes are embellished using mordant- and resist-dyeing processes (which stops the dye reaching parts of the fabric). The results have varied greatly, depending on where and when the cloth was made and the tastes of the makers and buyers, but designs are usually floral and often brightly coloured.

Indian chintzes have been highly prized for centuries, reaching Egypt, Indonesia, Iran and Italy. In the words of Harvard historian Sven Beckert, chintz was ‘a global commodity long before the idea of globalisation entered any language’. Enticed by their value and beauty, Dutch and British traders began importing them directly into Europe in the 17th century, where they became a sensation.

Chintz printing by hand at the William Morris factory
The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images

So sought after did Indian chintzes become, that protectionist trading policies, known as the Calico Acts, were enacted in Britain to prevent the collapse of local textile manufacturing. However, once domestic production of chintzes could rival Indian ones, these laws were repealed.

British traders would go on to colonise the entire production process, from the growing of the cotton to the sale of the finished cloth, kickstarting the Industrial Revolution in the process.

Karun Thakar’s ’Arabesque’ wallpaper for Soane
’Avignon’ wallpaper by Warner House
Warner House

Its global economic impact, as well as the craft and skill involved in the production of these textiles, has recently led to renewed popular and academic interest in them. The past five years have seen major exhibitions at the V&A, Royal Ontario Museum, the Museum of Friesland, and the Fashion and Textile Museum.

Chintz is also a living tradition, fascinating contemporary designers, including Rajesh Pratap Singh. Drawing on chintz’s heritage and his love and admiration for the work of William Morris, Pratap Singh created a modern indigo chintz in which acanthus fronds intertwine around tigers’ heads and tropical parakeets.

Sanderson’s ’Lophura’ fabric

As well as the rise of such sleek modern chintzes, there is also renewed enthusiasm for blowsier, traditional styles among a certain brand of social-media influencer. Branded ‘grandmillennials’, they are characterised by their devotion to Laura Ashley, curated clutter, hydrangeas, needlepoint and, above all, chintz. Ikea may finally need to reconsider its position, or at least adopt a new slogan. ‘Chintz: wonderful every day’, perhaps?

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