A history of Madras May 21 2013

Photo used with the kind permission of the Harris <br> Museum & Art Gallery

Photo used with the kind permission of the Harris <br> Museum & Art Gallery

Our fabric is made exclusively for us by a small company based in the countryside not far from Chennai, India. Chennai was previously known as Madras - from which the fabric gets its name. This fabric, characterised by its light weight and loose weave is traditionally Indian and has been produced there for centuries. This, however, was generally a plain muslin that was then overprinted or embroidered in elaborate patterns. The colourful plaids that are generally called Madras today first began appearing about 150 years ago and was the result of a very Scottish influence.

The Tartan craze of the 19th century began with George IV's visit to Scotland in 1822 and was continued through the reigns of William and Victoria - who decorated Balmoral extensively with tartans designed by Prince Albert. This took place against a background of rapid industrialisation of the Scottish textiles industry, which saw the traditional hand looms being replaced by large scale industrial production of cloth for the international market. The influence of Scottish tartan on the Indian textiles industry can be seen on the excellent Harris Museum Textiles Manufacturers Of India website. The examples pictured are swatches of fabric manufactured in Madras sometime around 1866. One is very clearly a Tartan while the other bears a great deal of resemblance to the fabric that is today called Madras. One of the major companies involved in manufacturing and marketing this fabric was Anderson & Lawrie who later became David & John Anderson.

 David & John Anderson owned one of the largest mills in Glasgow during the 1850s and are today best known as the inventors of Oxford cloth. What is less well known today is the influence they had on the Indian textiles industry. An article in the Boston Evening Transcript from Friday, January 17th 1908 credits them as "the earliest makers of the Oxford cloth and the originators of the Colored Madras and Zephyr Cloths of which they invented the names, now so largely used for Shirtings all over the world". It also states that because of these that they are "so well known at the present day in America, London and the Continent of Europe". It is known that David & John Anderson supplied Brooks Brothers and several other major American shirt makers with Oxford cloth and it is likely that this is also where they first encountered Madras.

Though Madras was known to America from the time it was first woven - 5 piece of plain muslin were part of the 1718 donation that the Governor of Madras Elihu Yales gave to the college that now bares his name - its heyday lasted from the late 1950s until the mid 1960s. It first gained popularity among the Americans tourists who holidayed in Bermuda and the West Indies during the 1930s as the light weight and loose weave were perfect for the climate. From here it was worn by Ivy League students going back to college in the Autumn where it marked them out as wealthy enough to visit the expensive tropical resorts. This demand grew up till the advent of WWII.

In the postwar years several major manufacturers introduced patterned madras to the American public. Unfortunately, the sudden high demand for fabric from India led to much being manufactured that wasn't given sufficient time to fix. When these shirts were laundered for the first time all the colours bled into one another. Customers were unhappy about this and immediately returned them to the manufacturers. Marketing guru David Ogilvy was brought in and came up with the ingenius solution of making a feature of the running colours. "Guaranteed to Bleed" was born and became an immediate success right across America.

The fabric began to fade away during the late 1960s when consumer tastes moved towards brighter and bolder synthetic colours and changes to the Indian economy meant the small scale, labour intensive vegetable dyeing became less viable. It has rarely been available in the years since and today we are one of the only companies who produce it.