Glossary: Cotton Calico

In modern American use, the term “calico” generally refers specially to printed (often floral), mid-weight, plain-woven cotton fabric, primarily produced for quilters. In the UK and Australia, however, “calico” is used to refer to unbleached or white cheap cotton fabric that would be called “muslin” in the United States, in modern usage, and which I refer to as “utility muslin.” Both “muslin” and “calico” had different meanings historically than they do today. Muslin was a different type of fabric entirely, whereas calico simply had a broader definition, including a whole range of light- to mid-weight cotton fabrics in tabby weave. These fabrics were sometimes printed, but might also be plain white or colored. Some historical calicoes were lighter in weight and finer than most modern calicoes.

For more information about mid-weight plain-woven cotton fabrics, see the entry on cotton broadcloth. For information on cotton in general, see the entry on cotton fiber. For information on historical muslins, see the entries for cotton voile or cotton batiste.

Definitions of calico and other midweight cottons from a variety of print resources, each of which contains further information:

Several samples of cotton fabric of this type are included, but are known simply by their printed or woven design (for instance calico) or their intended use (for instance shirting), without specific names being applied. Three different light-mid-weight cotton prints are shown, on pages 9, 10, and 11, in addition to the calico sample shown under the heading “Calico” on page 25, which goes on to state that “Printed cotton fabrics are still called ‘calico’ today. In the nineteenth century, calico revolutionized women’s wardrobes. Previous to the Industrial Revolution, printed cottons were status symbols of wealthy American colonists, who purchased the expensive, hand-painted and block-printed cottons imported from India and, later, England and France. By the nineteenth century, with the invention of the cotton gin and water-powered spinning, weaving, and printing machines–along with slave labor in the cotton-growing southern states–cotton calicoes became affordable for all.”

Page 26 states that “‘Cambric’ as a term was used rather loosely in the early nineteenth century” and that in addition to being line white linen in a tabby weave, “it could be colored, it could be glazed, and it could be printed. Ackermann’s Repository, an early-nineteenth-century English periodical of literature and fashion, frequently uses the term ‘cambric’ to mean ‘calico.'”

Page 26 offers a sample of chambray, which is plain woven and light-to-mid-weight, but “generally has a colored warp and a white weft.” It is also stated that “It is likely that cotton chambray was generally considered under ‘shirting’ in store inventories, and not otherwise specified.”

Page 33 offers a sample of gingham, which is a mid-weight cotton. It states that “Rather than denoting a particular woven checked pattern, ‘gingham’ described a family of pattern-woven fabrics in the early nineteenth century, including all sorts of stripes, checks, and chambray, in cotton, linen, and even wool or silk.”

On page 175, “calico” is defined as “cotton cloth of various qualities, often applied to the coarser, printed cottons.” On page 176, “dimity” is defined as “a fine ribbed fabric, white or colored, sometimes prints.” On page 178, “muslin” is defined as “stout, light, open cotton fabric of varying fineness, used for summer dresses, plain, printed, dyed, dotted. A general term used for similar fabrics as lawn, mull, cambric.” On page 179, “poplin” is defined as “fine, smooth, strong fabric with a plain silk warp and coarse silk weft, or of all cotton.” Also on page 179, “print” is defined as ” a plain fabric, often cotton, with a figure stamped on one or both sides, sometimes called calico.”

Entry for “calico” on page 184: “Cotton cloth of many grades and varieties first made in India and later in the West. Thomas Sheraton gives a broad definition in his Encyclopedia, 1804-7:

“In commerce a sort of cloth resembling linens made of cotton. The name is taken from that of Calicut, the first place at which the Portuguese landed when they first discovered the Indian Trade. . . . Calicoes are of different kinds, plain, printed, stained, dyed, chintz, muslins, and the like, all included under the general denomination of calicoes.” (page 184)

Online Resources:

For more information about an individual fiber, fabric, or other material, select it on the right side menu for “Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials.” This will bring up all entries which have that tag, including (in most cases) a Glossary post like this one, which will offer a definition of that fiber, fabric, or material, and sometimes also offer useful links to outside sources on working with it. For more general information, visit the core entry for the Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials. For a directory of all textile glossary posts, go to the Glossary Table of Contents.

Updated January 10, 2012

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