You can also find out more about the A-Team here. Real Madras Handkerchiefs are made of cotton fabric with plaid patterns. They’re woven using dyed yarns and used widely in the West. The name derives from its colonial centre of Madras and its surroundings, while the fabric itself is produced by weavers along the south Indian coasts in the towns Kurinjipadi (now Chennai) Chirala (now Nagapattinam), Ami, Gummidipundi Saidapet Perala Sullurpet. While it is today known by colonial-era names such as “Bleeding Madras” and “George cloth,” RMHK cloth has been traded with West Africa since the sixteenth century and was possibly used locally in lungis and turbans for even longer. The fabric’s many names are a result of its popularity in various markets over time. RMHK fabric is sometimes confused with plain weave cotton fabrics like Telia Rumal or Guinea cloth. However, these fabrics use a different weaving method and do not have the plaid pattern that makes RMHK unique.
Fabrics were usually printed with yellows or blues. Indigo and Turmeric were the preferred dyes, since they produce green when mixed. RMHK is woven with the dyed yarn still wet. The colours combine during the weaving process, and the fibres expand to their maximum extent after the fabric has dried. This makes the weave compact and colourful and saves dyes. Colonial merchants in the nineteenth century added the word “Real” to the Madras Handkerchief’s name to distinguish the handwoven cloth from imitations made in Europe. These imitations, made on a power loom that was still in its early stages, did not appeal to customers used to the feel, density and strength of the original fabric.
One of the oldest and largest markets for RMHK cloth before British rule were the Kalabari and Igbo peoples in present-day Nigeria, who have used it as a garment since the 1500s and refer to it as “Injiri” and “George cloth” respectively. The Portuguese slave traders established this connection by bartering the cloth in exchange for slaves that they sent to the Americas. Production grew further during the British Colonial Period, especially with the introduction of fly-shuttle weaving.
At its height of popularity, the cloth would be eight yards in length and two and half yards wide. The coarser bolts were used to make lungis and turbans by the Indian population and, later, also by immigrants from Burma (now Myanmar), Southeast Asia and other countries. Exports were made of the softer and finer fabric. The fabric was first imported as bales in Britain to reduce taxation. It was then cut into handkerchief squares and sold.
In the 1950s the fabric began to be exported to the US under the name Bleeding Madras. This was because the particular variety that was sent to the US had a tendency for the colour to bleed between the checks, so the cloth would appear to have a different design with every wash. The fabric was meant to be laundered rarely to give the cloth a new look with each wash.
In the 1990s the production of RMHK has been significantly affected by the proliferation of more sophisticated power looms in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, as well as the changing fashion trends and the slowing down of the demand. The cloth is still produced by a very small number of weavers, none using the traditional handloom technique. The RMHK chequered pattern is still reproduced today on a wide range of modern garments, but rarely by dyeing threads or replicating the original process.
This excerpt is taken from MAP Academy’s ‘Encyclopedia of Art’ with permission.
The MAP Academy is a non-profit, online platform — consisting of an Encyclopedia, Courses and a Blog — which encourages knowledge building and engagement with the visual arts of the region.