What is calico fabric? Well, mention the word ‘calico’ to most people and they picture a piece of soft, cotton fabric, maybe blue or green, printed with delicate little posies. These days, calico comes in more colors and prints than you can possibly imagine. But ‘calico’ isn’t defined by its prints. Calico is a type of fabric, and in the beginning it had no color at all.
What Is Calico Fabric?
Calico was first produced over a thousand years ago in Calicut, a city in southwestern India.
From the beginning, calico was made of unbleached cotton that was only partially processed. This produced a coarse cloth, but, due to the thickness of the un-processed cotton fibers, it was also extremely durable. Somewhat like today’s denim fabric.
Calico was really the perfect fabric for the times. Because it was so cheap to produce it could also be sold at a much lower price than other fabrics. Combine that with the fact that it was also the most durable fabric on the planet and you can see why the average person who lived, worked, played, and worshiped in the same two shirts or dresses all year round thought calico fabric was the bee’s knees.
The History of Calico Fabric
Printed calico was mentioned in writings that date back to the 12th century, and by the 15th century India was trading printed calico fabric with Egypt.
Two centuries later, England discovered the wonders of calico fabric when English pirates seized a Portuguese ship that had some onboard.
Now, England’s climate didn’t support growing cotton. Instead, they had a thriving wool industry. However, as calico fabric increased in popularity, English manufacturers started importing cotton so they could produce calico themselves and capitalize on its popularity.
Seeing the decline in wool consumption and jobs related to the wool industry, and noting the alarming increase in cotton imports, British Parliament stepped in and passed a law to stop the importation of printed calicoes from India, China, and Persia.
This embargo lasted for a few years until America started exporting printed calicoes. When cotton imports from America started threatening their wool industry again, Parliament passed another law. This time, anyone caught wearing printed calico would be fined.
This final law did the trick. Instead of exporting printed calicoes, India simply moved to exporting plain, unbleached calico fabric. Eventually they skipped over even the production of calico and exported raw cotton. And their largest customer? Why, England, of course!
Today’s Calico Fabrics
Over the years the term ‘calico print’ has become a bit muddled with ‘printed calico’, but it’s important to understand that there’s a difference. On one side we have calico fabric that has a print and on the other we have all the other printed cottons that have a calico-type print, for example premium cottons or chintz.
The Keepsake Calico line at Joann is the only line that has the word ‘calico’ in the name. That’s because the other lines are woven cotton fabrics that have a calico-type print but they are not actually calico fabric.
Because it’s made of thicker cotton fibers calico is a heftier fabric than a premium cotton weave. It has a bit less drape and it’s not quite as smooth and soft as the premium cottons, making it not the best choice for most apparel.
Calico is, on the other hand, a lot more durable than softer cottons. If you’re making quilts or tote bags, curtains, pillowcases, or anything that’s going to get a lot of use and require a lot of washings over time, then calico is the best choice.
Donna Anderson 'works' at Joann Fabrics at 4600 W. Broad St. in Columbus, OH. Just look for the crazy old lady behind the cutting counter. As a kid, she ran with scissors and ate paste. She's since found safer, more creative ways to use her Fiskars and Mod Podge. Next time you're at the store, stop by the cutting counter and have a chat! (Just please don't ask me about lightbulbs!)