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Until the late 15th century, Persian and Arab traders controlled the spice trade. The major European powers desperately wanted spices such as pepper, nutmeg and cloves, but their gold coins were not appealing to the spice-producing countries in Southeast Asia. Eventually, the Portuguese, English and Dutch discovered if they used their gold to buy painted and printed Indian cottons, they could exchange them for spices. They also realized that vibrant Indian cottons were highly valued in Europe, where attempts to infuse cotton fabrics with permanent colour had so far failed. Indian textile makers used metal salts as mordants (from the French mordre, to bite) to make the natural dyes bite into and stay on the cloth. This method produced bright and fast colours on cotton long before chemical fabric dyes were invented in Europe in the mid-19th century.

Where was this textile created?

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Europe: Western Europe, Netherlands, Zaanstreek
Late 18th century
Painted and dyed cotton from the Coromandel Coast of India, linen lining
52 cm x 97 cm
Gift of Dr. Howard Gorman
T92.0318 Textile Museum of Canada

This petite jacket is cut in the 18th century style of northern Europe. Both the outer and inner fabrics are pieced from fragments, which suggests the garment is made from cloth that has seen prior use. The inner lining is made of linen and presumably of Dutch manufacture, while the outer fabric is from India.

Mastery of the use of two of the most important and useable natural dyes in the world – indigo leaves for blues and madder roots for reds – developed in India over many centuries. Archeological discoveries in Mohenjo Daro, Pakistan, date the use of these and other natural dyes of the Indus Valley to at least 1750 BC.

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