a: cotton cloth imported from India
b: British : a plain white cotton fabric that is heavier than muslin: any of various cheap
cotton fabrics with figured patterns
a: a blotched or spotted animal; especially one that is predominantly white with red and black patches
Look here, young man, don’t show me anything like calico. You think I want to make a blouse out of curtain material?” my mother asked, looking over the rim of her glasses at the clerk. “Show me your best two-by-two. It must be very soft and nice. And don’t show me two-by-one. I know the difference, you know.”
My mother, the indefatigable lover of fabric, spent countless days inside Nalli’s Silk House, Chennai’s famous sari and fabric retailer, and I sat there amid the smell of cotton and silk listening to her usage of English words that made little sense to me.
My mother didn’t speak any English but she used English words as if they were part of the Tamil lexicon. “Lipstick” was converted to “liftick.” “Briefcase” got clobbered too and I could not, even briefly, make a case of it because, for all she cared, I could take the “briescafe” and stuff it. When she repeated a word after I corrected her, she went on to pronounce it exactly how she wanted to say it and insisted that she was right.
Fortunately, she was good with most of the words related to textiles. The word “calico” cropped up often, I know, and so did long cloth, handloom, silk, cambric, polyester and terylene. I distinctly remember the discussions about “two-by-one” cotton versus “two-by-two” cotton and I believed that my mother could detect any and all thread-count information from as far away as Mars. My mother knew only two categories of women; those whose sari blouses were tailored from two-by-two cotton, the more expensive per meter, and those from the lesser two-by-one. I gleaned yet another fact of life from her love affair with textiles: no self-respecting woman would wear calico–the rough, cheap plain-woven textile made from unbleached, and often not fully processed, cotton–on her body.
I never gave it any more thought at the time but when I arrived in America and saw the word again on the name of a store called Calico Corners in the Bay Area, it took me back to my days by the glass counters of Nalli and the aroma of vetiver infused cold water from Nalli’s coolers.
I didn’t realize, until recently, however, that over 2000 years of Indian and world history had been woven by the heft of fabric, specifically, by calico cotton. The word “calico” has its origins in the name of the city of Kozhikode in India’s Kerala. The port was known as Calicut by the seafarers of the Indian Ocean. The early cotton weaving industry was concentrated in the Coromandel region, the hot regions of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and Calicut was one of the flourishing trading ports along the Malabar coast. In those days, long before the Europeans arrived on Indian shores, Armenian, Arab and Indian traders, took advantage of the monsoons to transport the cotton bales from Calicut to all the ports on the Red Sea from where the cloth was shipped to European and Mediterranean shores.
Over the centuries, weavers and textile workers received patronage from the courts and India became known around the world for its rich fabrics and varied weaving techniques. Literature of the different ages celebrated Indian textiles. In his encyclopedic work, Manasollasa, the Western Chalukya king, Somesvara, who ruled from 1124-1138, described the fabrics and costumes commonly worn in India. He wrote evocative descriptions about silk (pattasutra), cotton (karpasa), linen (kshauma) yarn and goat-wool, about male and female accessories popular at the time and about the famous weaving centers across India.
Travelers to India–Chau Ju-kua from the Fu-kien province of China in the 12th century and Marco Polo from Italy in the 13th century–wrote extensive reports about cottons from India. During the English textile trade with India, Indian calicoes began to be admired for the brightness of their hues and the colorfast nature of their dyes. In the 17th century, calicoes became cheap clothing for the slaves of plantation owners in the West Indies.
By the early eighteenth century, worried by the popularity of all Indian textiles, manufacturers of silk and wool in England began protesting against the import of Indian cotton textiles. The English East India Company had embraced the demand for calico by importing exotic textiles from around the globe into England and created competition for domestic textile factories. In 1720, the British government instituted “The Calico Act” banning the import and the use of printed cotton textiles in England and restricting their sale.
You could say that calico continued to haunt me long after I made my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. For our first home in San Jose, I shopped at Calico Corners for drapery material and sewed drapes for one bedroom. I knew then that I would never again put myself through the stress of being a seamstress. Five years later I shopped at Calico Corners again in the late 80s—when everyone swore by the elegance of loud prints, drapes, swags, valances, cornices, ties and tassels—vending out the job of our home’s window treatments to the store.
Recently, I came across the word yet again when I ran into a cat. If you’ve never heard of the Calico cat, the term is used to refer to a domestic cat with a spotted or parti-colored coat that is predominantly white, with patches of two other colors. It struck me then that the word calico had given me a lot of grief—as dust in drapes and dander in cat. As you can see, for me, calico has another connotation: allergy.