Editor’s Note: In today’s edition, we’re launching a new partnership with the MAP Academy, a wonderful online platform aimed at building knowledge of South Asian art. Each month, we will carry an essay from their Encyclopedia of Art—a fabulous resource for anyone who wants to learn about our shared history and culture. The MAP Academy is a non-profit online educational platform committed to building equitable resources for the study of art histories from South Asia. This article originally appeared on the MAP Academy website, with due image credits for photos used in this republished piece.
The tales of two handkerchiefs
Editor’s note: Taken together, Real Madras Handkerchief and Telia Rumal tell a wonderful story about South India’s storied tradition of textile weaving—which has endured to this day.
The story of the Real Madras Handkerchief
A cotton cloth patterned with colourful plaid checks, Real Madras Handkerchiefs (RMHK) are woven with dyed yarn and popularly used in the West. The name is derived from its colonial export centre, the city of Madras (now Chennai, Tamil Nadu) and its surrounding areas, whereas the fabric itself was produced by weavers on the coasts of South India in the towns of Kurinjipadi, Chirala, Nagapattinam, Ami, Gummidipundi, Saidapet, Perala and Sullurpet. While it is today known by colonial-era names such as “Bleeding Madras” and “George cloth,” RMHK cloth has been traded with West Africa since the sixteenth century and was possibly used locally in lungis and turbans for even longer. The fabric’s many names are a result of its popularity in various markets over time. RMHK is often mistakenly conflated with other plain weave cotton fabrics such as Telia Rumal and Guinea cloth, but these involve a different method of weaving and lack the plaid design particular to RMHK cloth.
This fabric was generally patterned with checks in yellows, blues, greens and reds. The favoured dyes used were indigo and turmeric, as these would produce green when combined. RMHK was woven while the yarn was still wet with dye: colours combined during the process and the fibres expanded to their full extent only after the fabric dried, making the weave extremely compact and colourful with a great economy of dyes used.
Here is an image of the Real Madras Handkerchiefs for the head and shoulders.
Colonial merchants in the nineteenth century added the word “Real” to the Madras Handkerchief’s name to distinguish the hand woven cloth from imitations made in Europe. Made on an early power loom, these imitations did not attract customers who were habituated to the feel, strength and high density of the original fabric.
This is the imitation English handkerchief.
One of the oldest and largest markets for RMHK cloth before British rule were the Kalabari and Igbo peoples in present-day Nigeria, who have used it as a garment since the 1500s and refer to it as “Injiri” and “George cloth” respectively. This connection was established by Portuguese slave traders, who bartered the cloth for slaves to send to the Americas. Production further grew during the British colonial period, especially after the introduction of the fly-shuttle loom. At the peak of its popularity, the cloth was typically eight yards long and two and a half yards wide. The more coarse bolts of fabric were used as lungis and turbans among the local population, and later also by migrants from Burma (now Myanmar) and Southeast Asia who began arriving in India in the nineteenth century. The relatively finer and softer fabric was exported. In Britain, these were first brought in as bales of fabric to minimise taxation, then cut into squares as handkerchiefs and sold. Beginning in the 1950s, the fabric was exported to the US as Bleeding Madras, since the variety sent there had a tendency to bleed colour between its checks so that the cloth appeared to have a new design with each wash. These were intended to be washed rarely, offering the user a sense of novelty in addition to increasing durability.
Below is the English pattern handkerchief.
Since the 1990s, the spread of more sophisticated power looms, changing fashion trends, and slowing demand for the cloth in Nigeria and other parts of Africa have significantly impacted RMHK production. Very few weavers continue to produce the cloth, and none do so through the traditional handloom method. Today, the chequered RMHK pattern is reproduced on a variety of contemporary garments but this is rarely done by dyeing the threads or replicating other aspects of the original process.
Seeing as they share a common visual and design element—checks—Real Madras Handkerchiefs are often mistaken for telia rumals and vice versa. The checks are the only thing these two textile varieties have in common, the making of each textile involves its own particular, and in the case of telia rumal, laborious, dyeing and weaving process. Read on to discover how telia rumals are created, using the centuries-old double ikat technique.
The story of the Telia Rumal
Also known as chowka and Asia rumal, the telia rumal is a square cloth whose name translates to “oily kerchief” and derives from the oil-based solution with which the cotton yarn is pre-treated before being woven into fabric. Today, the double-ikat technique of producing telia rumals is practised primarily in the state of Telangana, where the village of Puttapaka is a hub of production.
Here is a sari from Andhra Pradesh, India, dating late 20th century–early 21st century.
Like ikat weaving, the origins of the telia rumal have not been precisely dated, though historians believe the technique has been practised from the mid-1800s onwards. The rumal typically comprises two uncut pieces, where each individual piece measures between 55 to 75 sq. cm. It has a wide, single-coloured border around the main field—which is divided into a grid with repeating geometric motifs—and features fine checks on the corner fields. The traditional colour schemes of the telia rumal were black, red and white, as well as shades of brown, all of which were achieved using plant or mineral-based dyes.
This is an image of the Imitation Telia Rumal sari from Andhra Pradesh, India, dating c. 20th century, silk and gilt metal.
The process of creating the telia rumal begins with the pre-treatment of the cotton yarn. In this technique, the yarn is first steeped in a slurry of water and goat or cattle dung for twenty four hours. It is then treated in a solution of gingelly oil (also known as Indian sesame oil), or sometimes castor oil, mixed with the ash of castor-seed pods. The yarn is submerged in small quantities of the oil-ash mixture, worked on for fifteen minutes, squeezed and then sundried—a process which is repeated once a day for sixteen days. Once this process is completed, the yarn is washed and dried. It is this process that gives the telia rumal the distinct texture and smell from which it derives its name. This step also acts as a form of mordanting, allowing the yarn to better absorb the dye.
Below is the image of yarn treated with sesame and castor oil, and sheep dung.
The next step is the preparation of the warp and weft yarns. The yarn is wound onto cylindrical cones and taken to a warping mill, which enables the correct length of the warp yarn to be wound in the right sequence. The weft is similarly prepared on a semi-circular frame. Prior to the use of the warping mill, the weft preparation would be done by hand on semi-circular wooden frames with pegs—locally known as asu—or on poles in the streets.
This image shows the warp preparation.
The telia rumal uses the double-ikat technique, in which both the warp and the weft are resist-dyed before weaving. The complexity of the technique requires the design to first be mapped onto a graph. The weaver then estimates how many threads will be woven in a square inch, depending on the thickness of the yarn, and based on this estimation the warp yarn is divided and tied off into units. The warp yarn is then folded to enable the tying of eight to ten rumals at a time. The design is traced onto the yarn units with the help of a guide string. The parts of the warp and weft yarns that have been marked to resist dyes are tied with string or rubber ties. The weft yarns are dyed only after the warp has been set on the loom. After being wound on the asu, stretched, marked and dyed according to the design, the weft yarns are bound onto bobbins for the weaving process. Traditionally, a fly shuttle pit loom is used to weave the telia rumal.
Here is the warp on the loom.
In the past, red pigment was derived from organic alizarin mixed with alum. Aal, a dye extracted from the Indian Mulberry plant, was also used for red. Brown was derived by adding iron filings to this mixture. Black was derived by mixing alizarin and alum with the plant dye known as erakasu, or through a fermented mixture of iron filings, jaggery and water. In contemporary practice, synthetic dyes are used, including naphthol dyes that do not require the yarn to be pre-treated.
In the past, these rumals were exported to regions such as East Africa, West Asia and Burma, and were used locally as lungis by fishermen and cowherds. They were also used as turbans by men, and the oil from the dyeing process was believed to protect the head from heat and dust. Telia rumals woven in finer fabric were worn as dupattas by princesses in the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad and often embellished with embroidery or khadi work. The most important production centre was the town of Chirala, near the Andhra coast, from where the technique spread to Pochampally and its neighbouring villages, including Puttapaka. The motifs also underwent a change between the 1920s and the 1930s, when geometric patterns expanded to include figurative patterns, and even some contemporary motifs such as an aeroplane and gramophone. By the middle of the twentieth century, production of the telia rumal died out in Chirala as the result of a decline in international trade, but it has continued in Puttapaka and, to a lesser extent, in Pochampally.
Today, the telia rumal has evolved from its traditional form into a design language that is used on sarees, dupattas and stoles—a transition that began in the 1950s. While cotton yarn is still used in telia rumal weaving, mulberry silk, tussar and mercerised cotton are also used. Telia rumal weaving received a significant boost through the efforts of revivalists such as Suraiya Hasan Bose and Martand Singh, and master weavers such as Gajam Govardhana, who exhibited his hand woven pieces internationally at the Festivals of India in the 1980s and the 1990s. Govardhana had also filed an application for a Geographical Indication (GI) tag on behalf of the weavers of Puttapaka, and the telia rumal was recognised with a GI tag in early 2020.
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