What textiles were British women bringing with them to India

"The new game of Badminton in India" from The Graphic. 25 April 1874

When British women moved to India with their husbands, brothers, and fathers in the nineteenth century they did so out of a sense of domestic obligation. An obligation to take care of these men and provide them with a comforting environment when not at work while in a foreign country. Many women did this by attempting to recreate, as much as was possible, the comforts of the homes left behind on the British Isles. One of the main ways of doing this was through the liberal use of textiles brought with them to India. Yet, many of these textiles had originated either in design or more physically in fiber, in India. The question of what these textiles were and how they came to be served to highlight the transfer of ideas and goods between Britain and India during this time.

Throughout the entirety of the 19th century, there was a shift on the Indian subcontinent as the British supplanted native Indian ruling dynasties and set up a colonial system of government. At the same time, the interactions between the British and the native Indians changed to match the political situation. Where before the Europeans living in India had embraced Indian culture, including wearing the costume of the region where they lived, and had at times intermarried and even converted to Hinduism or Islam, by the end of the century there was very little contact between the two groups on even a most cursory social level. The women were known to speak openly of the fact that they willfully ignored India, as was culturally expected of them to do.

By looking at the ways that these women use textiles throughout the course of the century it is possible to not only trace the changes of the Anglo-Indian social dynamic but to also trace the ways that textiles originally viewed as exotic became domestic and comforting. Two particular textiles which gained initial popularity due to their differences with the prevailing European styles at the time they were introduced were chintz prints and Kashmir shawls. As these textiles were absorbed from their original Indian iterations by the British textile industry and turned into a British product they were also absorbed by the British culture as a symbol of a warm home environment. Is it also important to track the ways in which the Indian agricultural industry supported the British textile industry in the form of cotton and wool exports. By the end of the 19th century, the Indian subcontinent was one of the largest exporters of raw fiber materials within the British Empire. As the Indian wool and cotton exports grew so did the amount of textiles made from these raw fibers which were being brought back to India, either as cheap imports to the Indian people or through higher quality goods brought with the British ruling class.

Finding the Comforts of Home

While technically being called a colony of Britain, India was not a colony in the sense of a mass movement of people to the area for colonization.[1] The vast majority of people who moved to India were moving for a short term basis and worked for the East India Trading Company, colonial government, or the British army. With that in mind, women were essential for keeping men in India. A man without a wife would have been believed to be without any of the comforts of home. Alternatively, a man with a wife could expect to have a little slice of England waiting for him every afternoon, which might serve to stave off the overwhelming homesickness which struck many Englishmen (and women) living in India.[2] Men were frequently transferred around the subcontinent, something which they responded to happily as it kept the environment from becoming boring but which for the women, left in charge of packing and moving all the household items and frequently pregnant, formed a large challenge.[3] Because of this constant lack of domestic stability large pieces of furniture were among items which Anglo-Indian housekeeping books recommended be left behind, a suggestion which proved all too valuable in hindsight to women such as one Monica Lang, who was foolhardy enough to take a piano with her through Assam only to have it stepped on by wild elephants while moving. [4] After all, as the Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook said: “People are here to-day, gone to-morrow, and so solidities and fragilities of all sorts are a sheer nuisance.”The essential furniture trappings of the 19th century domestic interior in England, a piano, setee, sideboard, and so on, were out of place and a nuisance in India. Many of these pieces were available for rent at the various stations and outposts but were not something which an individual family owned and moved with them from location to location.Instead, women had to rely on draping their home in textiles to create the desired image of comfort and a kind of warmth which was different from the oppressing heat and humidity that surrounded them, a warmth that was more mental and emotional.[5]

Kashmir Shawls

The Reluctant Bride, 1865, Auguste Toulmouche. The woman on the left is shown wearing a large Kashmir Shawl.

One of the key items in this domestic interior was the Kashmir (or Cashmere) shawl. Introduced into the European fashion world by French noblewomen in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they became a crucial part of the fashionable silhouette during the Regency and Empire styles. Unlike their contemporary sheer high-waisted muslin gowns (muslin being yet another Indian textile export which filtered through all layers of British society) which were replaced by the large skirted and higher necked gowns of the rest of the century the Kashmir shawls entered into the public conscious as the essential accessory for the respectable woman. [6]

Originally from the Kashmir region of northern India and patterned with both floral patterns and the curving shapes which would come to be known as paisley, Kashmir shawls were desirable because the pattern was visible on both sides and the goat fiber from which they were made was extremely soft and warm without being overly bulky. Although initially, all the shawls from Kashmir were hand woven and only made in India, the development of Jacquard loom in Europe, which allowed for similar patterning (although not reversible) created an economic situation such that by the end of the century the weavers in Kashmir were priced out of the market. At that point, many of the shawls coming from Kashmir were embroidered onto a plain white woven length of shawl cloth, a style which was also used to create full cloaks for export as this process was far quicker. Eventually, even that cost saving measure was not enough and the weavers of Kashmir were forced to move to areas where the wool was not as high of quality. By the end of the century the large shawls called Kashmir were almost entirely a domestic British product and the shawls which women brought with them to India, though based off of a handmade Indian product, were fully industrial and British in manufacture. [7]

Woman's Shawl, India, Kashmir, mid-19th century, Goat-fleece underdown (cashmere wool) twill with double-interlocking tapestry-weave patterning, pieced, with wool embroidery, in the Collection of the Las Angeles County Museum of Art.

Within the domestic sphere, these same colorful and brightly patterned shawls moved from the shoulders of the domestic tastemakers to cover pieces of furniture. The Victorian’s were enraptured with covering every surface in their homes with textiles. Draping a shawl across a rented piano or a piece of subpar furniture enabled the homemaker in India the ability to hide some of the roughness of the situation. By using the same or similar textiles in the same ways, women stationed in India were able to create the illusion of being in a familiar and comforting environment. What is particularly interesting about the use of the Kashmir shawl within the domestic interior is that the image which is trying to be curated is one of middle-class British comfort while the object is a visual representation of the world outside the home, the world which the British women were trying so hard to ignore.

Chintz and the Early 19th Century

Against this domestic Victorian background a larger struggle was occurring throughout India, one which took the power out of the hands of the Mughal and other ruling dynasties at the beginning of the 19th century and placed the subcontinent as the shining gem in the British Imperial crown by the end of the century. In many ways, the influx of British women, the development of Victorian moral ideals, and the textile trade were extremely influential in that change. In the late 1700s and the first couple of decades of the 1800s when there were very few women coming from Britain to India, it was far more commonplace for British men working and living in India to assimilate into the Indian culture of the time.[8]

Those women who were making the journey were women who were interested in the adventure of the situation or women taking advantage of the lack of European women in India to find a husband. For these women the journey to India was very difficult, taking up to six months via a dangerous ocean journey around the tip of Africa. While on the ship there were two main ways for women to interact with textiles, through their nightgowns and chemises and through the small comforts they were able to bring on board. [9] Lengths of chintz were recommended to be brought along - these lengths of textiles could be used to create privacy curtains on either side of the sleeping accommodations women found themselves in. For some women, their sleeping quarters were as simple as a hammock hung above a cannon while dirty water rushed across the floor below - in these situations being able to create a small enclosure from a brightly printed piece of fabric would have been one of the very few comforts available onboard ship. Later women traveling on the more comfortable steamers were also advised to bring old clothing with them as well as their own linens, chintz laundry bags, and once again chintz curtains for privacy.[10]

Chintz by the earliest parts of the 19th century was already an accepted part of the British textile culture. Originally meaning an Indian hand-printed cotton, patterned using mordants and resist dying - two techniques which were perfected in India before Europe, coming from a Hindustani word for “spotted”. The term came to mean a cotton fabric that was usually glazed with a floral print, regardless of where it was made. In the 19th century, chintzes were being made throughout England using resist dying and roller printing techniques. These British chintzes were more affordable than the original handmade Indian pieces and were a textile used throughout all levels of British society for both furnishing and clothing. Many of the patterns used by Western textile producers for their chintz cotton were variations on patterns which had been designed in India for export to the European market. This means that while the patterns were Indian in nature when they were taken by British women to India they did not match the products of the native textile industry.
Chintz dresses, Victoria & Albert Museum, London - DSCF0380

Changes in British Colonial Society

In the time before the mass movement of women from Britain to India the social structure was looser, meaning that European women were able to befriend and visit the Hindu and Muslim women of their social level. This led to many women accepting and wearing gifts of textiles and jewelry from these women as well as participating in cultural interactions, leading to an appreciation of the area where they lived. With the rise of Victorian morals towards the middle of the century, women of other religions were no longer appropriate friends. At the same time, trade and governing relations between the men also soured for many of the same reasons. Those men who had long been in India and had taken Indian brides were being excluded from “polite” British society as were those who had adopted Indian customs and costume. This meant that the men now in charge of trade agreements were men who held a great level of disdain for the people and cultures of India who they viewed as heathens and savages, little better than children, to be patronized.[12]

As more women entered into India from the 1850’s onward a new social structure was formed based off of the profession of the man of the family and their rank in the new colonial government. At the top of the social stack were the families of the members of the Indian Civil Service. These were men with occupations within the ruling core of the Raj. From there it descended through the Indian Political Service, Indian Medical Service, the Public Works Department, and the European officers of the Indian Army. Careers viewed as respectable in England such as the cleric or scholar were relegated to the furthest reaches of the social ladder, with non-ranking military men not even registering on the social radar. This social structure determined everything that British individuals in India did and because there were few children between the ages of seven and 17, what they tended to do was entertain and play sports.[13]

Here is where the costume of the woman in England and the costume of the woman in India differed. While they wore the same day gowns (with the women of the Raj wearing a surprisingly larger number of undergarments) the women living on the Indian subcontinent needed to possess a greater range of both evening and sporting attire. As their social group was quite small it soon became obvious which women were wearing the same gowns over and over again. One of the main issues with this is that almost all clothing had to be imported from England. This was for two reasons - firstly, despite India’s long textile history, by the middle and end of the 19th century the textile quality was better in England and what textiles were being imported back to India were of low quality, and secondly, Indian tailors were known to take European designs and give them an Indian flavor - something which simply could not be had in an era where all things Indian were to be shunned. [14]


Women coming to India were advised by the myriad of guidebooks available on what they needed to pack. This included according to the Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, a guide published in the 1890’s by a woman who had made the trip with her own husband, 12 nightgowns of calico, silk and wool, 12 combinations of the same, 12 merino and silk vests, 12 calico and trimmed muslin bodices, 24 pairs of stockings, 18 petticoats including both flannel and warm ones, four evening combinations of trimmed calico, 18 gowns plus as many evening gowns as the woman saw fit, 11 pairs of shoes/boots and evening slippers to match the gowns. An earlier guide, Real Life in India, recommended a staggering 36 calico nightgowns with 36 matching nightcaps.

As neither of these lists includes the complete amounts suggested within the texts what can be clearly seen is the staggering amount of clothing which women were instructed to bring with them. Many women who had been to India wrote home with suggestions for those who would follow and the most oft-repeated of these was to bring everything you would need from “Home” (with the capital H always referring to England, even among those people of mixed Indian and Anglo ancestry who had never been to the British Isles and who would not have been accepted as British had they made the trip). With a social structure centered around entertaining and outdoor activities women were expected to change their outfits several times a day, an accepted fact of Victorian England, yet, with the added subtropical heat more changes were required in India than would have been at Home. [15]


If women were bringing all their clothing to India with them, how was there a connection between the land where they resided and the clothes which they wore there? Simply put, Britain claimed India for a colony for its agricultural benefits and among those were the fibrous exports of cotton and wool. Between March 31, 1870, and March 31, 1871, the British Empire exported 577,600,764 pounds of cotton from India, making India one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world.[16] While this was at the end of India’s time of pre-eminence amongst cotton exporters, earned during the American Civil War when their largest competitor was out of commission.

Wool was also exported in large quantities. At the end of the 19th century, the Indian wool exports comprised approximately 13% of all British wool exports.[17] These millions of pounds of cotton and wool exported from India went to the cotton mills of Britain where they became fabric of varying quality. The lower quality fabrics were then sent back to India for use in the native population while the higher quality textiles were made into different fabrics for use among the British population, including, of course, the ubiquitous chintz and Kashmir shawls which filled the domestic interiors. These same textiles were being used to create the clothing of British women. In this way the textiles of India, even after claimed by the British, made a full circle back to the location which they came from.


In fulfilling their domestic obligations the women of the British Raj searched to create a familiar and comfortable space amidst a land they viewed as strange and foreign. The ways they did this was by using the things which were reminiscent of home and movable. These unbreakable items were the textiles which served to decorate and soften the edges of the living spaces.


  1. Margaret MacMillan, Women of the Raj, (New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1988) 16
  2. David Gilmour, The ruling caste: imperial lives in the Victorian Raj, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006) 302.
  3. Ibid. 295
  4. MacMillan, Women, 70.
  5. Ibid. 44
  6. Suzanne Daly, The empire inside: Indian commodities in Victorian domestic novels, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011) 13.
  7. Jennifer Harris, 5000 years of textiles, (London: British Museum Press in association with The Whitworth Art Gallery and The Victoria and Albert Museum, 1993) 107.
  8. Lawrence James, aj: the making and unmaking of British India, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998) 221.
  9. MacMillan, Women, 16-21.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Lucy Trench, Materials & techniques in the decorative arts: an illustrated dictionary, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) 86.
  12. William Dalrymple, White Mughals: love and betrayal in eighteenth-century India, (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 391.
  13. MacMillan, Women, 154.
  14. Ibid. 66
  15. Ibid. 66
  16. Peter Harnetty, "Cotton Exports and Indian Agriculture, 1861-1870," The Economic History Review 24, no. 3 (1971): 414.
  17. C. E. W. Bean, "The Wool Industry in the British Dominions," Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 61, no. 3143 (1913): 328.

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