Tag Archives: cotton calico

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

Glossary: Cotton Fiber

Cotton is a natural fiber which comes from a plant. Many different fabrics are made from cotton fiber, including voile, batiste, organdy, calico, sateen, flannel, jean, and a wide variety of other fabrics.

“Cotton is a vegetable seed fiber. Botanically, the fibers are the protective covering of the seeds in the cotton plant, a shrub that grows from four to six feet high. Dry cotton fiber is from 88 percent to 96 percent cellulosic.” (Ingham and Covey, The Costume Technician’s Handbook, page 62)

“Under magnification, cotton (a staple fiber) appears like a twisted ribbon. This twist is what makes cotton easy to spin. Cotton is weaker than flax, but its ease of manufacture quickly overcame that deficiency. Cotton is absorbent and thus comfortable to wear in hot weather.” (Bassett, Textiles for Regency Clothing 1800-1850, page 14)

“Extremely versatile in weight, texture, and construction. Found in fabric such as organdy, broadcloth, poplin, terry, corduroy, seersucker, denim, tweed. Used widely for summer wear, work clothes, and in heavier weights, for warm transitional garments.” (Butterick, Vogue Sewing, page 50)

“Cotton is cool, washable, appropriate to nearly all [mid 19th century living history] impressions in some way, and comes in a wide variety of colors and well-researched prints. Cottons fade with laundering and sun exposure, and tend to wear out more quickly than other fibers. It’s an economical choice for everyday or ‘wash’ garments.” (Clark, The Dressmaker’s Guide, 2nd ed., page 54)

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 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.

Glossary Entries for Cotton Fabrics:

Online Resources:

Print Resources: See the article Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials for a list of print resources.

Updated January 10, 2012

1830s pair of pockets in calico with piecing

Updated January 12, 2012 – finished object pictures coming soon

This garment was created as part of my 1830s clothing independent study during the spring semester of 2010, and was documented using Chicago style footnoted citations in my research paper “Reproducing and Documenting 1830s Women’s Clothing.” The relevant section has been copied here, complete with footnotes. It has been formatted for this site and hyperlinks have been added, but otherwise it has been left intact, and is therefore written in a more formal and academic style than much of this site, which is designed to be more readily accessible to the public.


(Excerpted from pages 15-17 of my research paper, “Reproducing and Documenting 1830s Women’s Clothing.”)

The second garment, and fourth item, that I reproduced was a pair of pockets, a type of garment common in the eighteenth century, which fell out of use during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when narrow skirts were in fashion, and which came into use again once skirts regained fullness around the 1820s. A pocket or pair of pockets were worn under the gown, and under at least the outermost petticoat. Referencing the eighteenth century but still relevant later, Linda Baumgarten states that “Pockets fastened around women’s waists with narrow ties made of linen or cotton. Although pockets were hidden beneath the skirt and petticoats, women often decorated them with needlework or piecing.”1 I drew from several sources to create my pair of pockets: the illustrations and directions in The Workwoman’s Guide2, the illustration of and accompanying notes about an extant pair of pair of pockets in Nancy Bradfield’s Costume in Detail: 1730-19303, and the photograph of and information about an extant pieced pocket on the Old Sturbridge Village collection website4. For my fabric, I ordered quilting-weight printed cotton from a reproduction fabric collection, the Pennock Album, circa 1840, available from Windham Fabrics in association with the Chester County Pennsylvania Historical Association. My fabric had a dotted warm tan ground with small, evenly spaced bouquets of burgundy and plum roses. Because I did not have quite enough fabric for the four pieces that needed to be cut out for the pockets, I made the decision to piece one pocket, patchwork-style, similar to the example on the Old Sturbridge Village collection website. For the other pieces, I used a plain light pink-brown cotton cloth, which I also used for the small interior pockets which I added, similar to those in the pocket depicted by Bradfield.

I based my pocket primarily on the directions given in The Workwoman’s Guide:
“Take a doubled piece [of cloth] of six nails [13-1/2”] width-way [on the cross-grain], and seven nails [15-3/4”] selvage-way when doubled, and cut according to Fig. 10. For this purpose, double the folded piece in half width-way, and close off from A to B one nail [2-1/4”]. The hole in the pocket is slit down about four nails [9”], beginning at three-quarters of a nail [1-11/16”] from the top. Cut the slit in the shape of an I, in order to allow of a deep hem being made on each side. The two pieces of the pocket are run firmly together all round, at a little distance from the edge, on the wrong side. It is then turned inside out, the seam well-flattened, and back-stitched all round with white silk, about a quarter of an inch from the edge. The top is set into a broad piece of tape, which is doubled over it and forms the strings also. The slit is hemmed or back-stitched neatly down. Sometimes an inner pocket or pockets are made for a watch &c. [etc.], and this is done by sewing a square piece of the material inside the pocket. The top is left open, but the sides and bottom of it are firmly sewed down.”1

Unfortunately, I failed to keep in mind that the illustrations in The Workwoman’s Guide are not to scale, and thus ended up cutting the I-shape for the slit far too wide, resulting in a slit that is more of a wide open rectangle, which is definitely not representative of the period pockets I was later able to examine personally in the Old Sturbridge Village collection. However, the “slit” in the pocket shown by Bradfield also appears to be an open rectangle, so perhaps this is not an unknown variation for the period. In any case, the experience was certainly a valuable lesson in the importance of using as many sources as possible to corroborate hard-to-understand sources. My pockets are top-stitched in burgundy cotton thread, and each pocket has two interior pockets to hold loose items. The tops of the pockets are bound with 1” wide, off-white cotton twill tape, with 1/2” twill tape attached to form the ties and connect the pockets, per Bradfield and The Workwoman’s Guide. In order to use the pockets, they are worn tied around the waist, over base petticoats but preferably under the uppermost petticoat as well as the gown. There are slits finished into the side seams of the uppermost petticoat and the gown so that the pockets can be accessed.

1   Linda Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal, 59

2   A Lady, The Workwoman’s Guide, plate 10 (following page 64) figs. 10 and 14; 73-74.

3   Nancy Bradfield, Costume in Detail, 167.

4   Old Sturbridge Village, “Pieced Pocket – Printed Cottons (Collection No. 26.67.15),” OSV Collection Viewer, Old Sturbridge Village, http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/collection_viewer.php?N=26.67.15.

 5   A Lady, The Workwoman’s Guide, 73.

end of excerpt

Further Resources:

1830s quilted petticoat of striped floral cotton calico

Alas, this is nothing but a placeholder page, waiting for me to take proper pictures, compile my notes and links into something useful, and turn it all into a helpful post.  In the meantime, you can take a look at my 19th Century Quilted Petticoats board on Pinterest, and you can catch a glimpse of my reproduction petticoat in the pictures of my red wool cloak.