Madras is the name given to a particular style of cotton fabric used in many places across the world and extensively by designers such as Ralph Lauren. Madras cotton is used to great effect in many of the Caribbean islands as the basis for their national costumes.
The fabric originated in the Southeast region of India called Madras by the British but later renamed as Chennai by the Indian government. It has a long history of being hand woven and made using bright colours. This is thought to have been reflective of the hot climate and foliage of the place where the fabric was made.
The fabric reached its height of popularity in the 18th century and was thought to have originally been made from the bark of an ancient tree called the Karvalem Patta. In the 12th century African to the Middle Eastern importers thought Madras fabric to be of high value and would import it to their respective continents to be used for headdresses.
In the 17th and 18th century during the British colonisation of India the popularity and the demand for lightweight cotton goods increased and Madras cotton was shipped to all corners of the British colonies. During the 1960’s the popularity of Madras soared again due to the vegetable dyes that were used in its production “bleeding” when the fabric was washed. What could have originally been seen as a fault in production gave the material a different non conventional look and became very fashionable at the time.
The Madras fabric that found its way to the Caribbean was influenced by the tartan worn by the Scottish regiments posted in the Southeast region of India during the 1800’s. Interestingly as with the Scottish clans adopting particular tartans to represent themselves, the Caribbean countries that use Madras in their national dress all use a different style and colour of Madras to represent their island. The island of St Lucia has even named their national costume after the fabric. Therefore it could be considered that Madras fabric has now become a sort of Caribbean tartan!
Madras cotton is still produced in Southeast India and the population of this region are very proud of its global popularity and history. According to the U.S Federal Trade Commission Madras cloth labelled and sold as such in the U.S must come from the city of Chennai. Although the fabric no longer bleeds due to fastening agents being used in the dying process it still remains a popular fabric with designers and is the mainstay of the “preppy” style.
From Ralph Lauren to J crew many American designers and design houses use Madras fabric in their designs. In the wider Diaspora artisans and designers such as Onekana ‘Be Seen’ and Blackbird Designs have used madras in for everything from shoes to trench coats.