The history of Madras fabric is tied up with colonialism, corruption and slavery on the one hand, and craftmanship and community pride on the other. If all this sounds like a soap opera, you aren’t too far off.
Madras is really the story of generations of family weavers who have carved out a unique niche in ancient and modern clothing. It’s been the national costume of Martinique since 1994 and a status symbol in the U.S. for over 75 years; meanwhile in its home country of India, it’s a humble fabric used for laboring class clothing or pajamas.
It’s a fabric of opposites that spans much of the globe – looked down upon in its native land, a reminder of slavery and oppression to some, yet a symbol of affluence to others.
What is madras plaid and how is it different from other plaid fabrics?
First, official Madras plaid, per the U.S. Federal Trade Commission must be made in Chennai. This is the modern name of the area of southern India previously known as Madraspatnam or Madras. The name was first used by a shirt maker in 1844 to describe the fabric, although the fabric has been around for over 5,000 years.
The fabric is woven from short staple cotton. This matters for several reasons:
- The fibers are more fragile so they can’t be carded, only combed. This means that there will be slubs when spun into yarn. These are bumps or thick spots in the yarn that give it a unique texture.
- The fabric must be hand woven so you might find slight flaws. Again, like slubs, this isn’t a bad thing.
- The pattern is identical on both sides.
Traditionally, vegetable dyes were used to dye the yarns. They used rice gruel as the dye adhesive and local boiling spring water. Because the mineral content of the water in different villages varied, the colors achieved were different.
There are some drawbacks to this dying process. Unless the fabric was washed in cold water with a mild detergent, the colors would bleed into each other. Although interesting and muted colors resulted, it wasn’t always tolerated when you ended up with pink underwear. Luckily, today, chemical dyes may be used so you won’t have to worry about bleeding as much. Caution: always follow the manufacturers’ cleaning instructions!
History of madras
Cotton fabrics were commonly produced in India. In the 1600’s the East India Company was determined to create a fabric for export so they offered financial incentives to attract 400 skilled weavers to settle Madras. The descendants of many of these weavers are still producing madras fabrics today, using the same traditional weaving techniques.
These original cottons weren’t plaid but striped, had ornamental depictions, or embroidered. However, after George IV visited Scotland in 1822, tartan became extremely popular. This was picked up by the weavers in Madras. Originally colors tended to be blue, black, and red because those were the vegetable dyes available. The plaid was so valued that it became possible to trade the fabric for slaves.
The Sears catalog first offered madras shirts in 1897. It was so popular that by the early 1900’s the New York Times declared a madras shortage. Starting in the 1920’s, through the Great Depression and into the post-WWII years it became a status symbol of those affluent enough to vacation in the Bahamas and bring the shirts home.
Brooks Brothers purchased a very large shipment of madras fabric to meet the need. Somewhere between the purchase and ultimate sale of the products in 1958, laundering instructions were left out. When the garments were washed the dyes all bled. David Ogilvy, an advertising legend, spun the disaster by starting a campaign that Brooks Brothers madras were “guaranteed to bleed” proving their authenticity. The campaign worked and madras’ popularity continued to grow.
Madras became one of the staples of “preppy style” from the 1920’s to today. Luckily, with the advent of chemical dyes, you don’t have to worry about bleeding, but you still get the same breathable, fashionable comfort – whether it’s in shirts or shorts. The ultimate madras mania is the patchwork garments of many different plaids. While this look is way too busy for most people, it is a look.
As with all Peter Manning clothing, we offer a proportionally designed shirt with the collar, sleeve and body length adjusted to fit our customers. We’ve chosen several plaids that will complement all of your casual outfits. Pair them with shorts or pants that are navy, khaki, olive, or white; or with jeans. Each shirt is offered in six sizes for the perfect fit.
Our madras fabric has been pre-washed before sewing so your shirt shouldn’t bleed or shrink significantly if washing directions are followed.
One of the great things about plaids is that you can choose to highlight one of the colors. Pair it with a t-shirt underneath, a vest or sweater over, or both if you are layering for spring and fall. Luckily, because these shirts are so breathable, pairing it with a pair of shorts makes for a casual, yet put-together look for the hottest summer days.
Madras is one of those clothing items that never really goes out of style – so it’s a great investment. It’s perfect for hot summer days and a single shirt can complement many different outfits. Even if the history of this hand-woven fabric isn’t important to you, it’s style, versatility, and comfort will be.