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Floral fabric that was banned

In a letter to her sister penned in 1851, the novelist George Eliot gave her opinion on some muslin fabrics. “The quality of the spotted one is best,” she said, “but the effect is chintzy”. Eliot, to whom the first use of the term ‘chintzy’ is attributed, was most likely slighting not bona fide chintz but rather an inferior copy of it. The real thing was vivid and luxuriant. Its production is something that “modern science still cannot explain,” says Sarah Fee, the curator of a future exhibition about chintz at the Royal Ontario Museum. “By that time, Britain’s factories had flooded world markets with cheap imitations of chintz, industrial imitation [which made] it widely available to the masses, disassociating any original connotation of luxury.”

Chintz — although it might today be largely associated with twee or cutesy armchairs and wallpaper — is, in its true form, a fabric that was not only once highly prized the world over, and helped revolutionise fashion and design, but also changed the course of history — in many cases, unfortunately, for the worse. “[Chintz tells] a story that is much larger, and often much less pleasant”, according to Harvard historian Dr Sven Beckert. “A tale of armed trade, colonialism, slavery, and the dispossession of native peoples.”

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