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The Problems of Nomenclature & its Historiography

Marika Sardhar, in her introduction to Indian Textiles at the Metropolitan Museum, New York explains that: 'The popularity of Indian textiles is evidenced in the number of words that have made their way into English: calico, pajama, gingham, dungaree, chintz, and khaki'. K.N. Chaudhuri tackled the problem of nomenclature and qualitative properties relating to cotton textiles traded by the English East India Company in his Trading World of Asia and the East India Company 1660-1760, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1978): 'From the early seventeenth century the records of the European East India Companies contain the names of a very wide variety of Indian cotton piece goods. Most of these can be identified both by the area where they were woven and finished and by their generic type. In addition the records often also mention the use to which the textiles were applied. It is much more of a problem to find the exact Indian terms for the corrupt spelling in which the piece-goods names appear in the Western sources. Henry Yule and A. G. Burnell attempted to provide some etymological guide in their Hobson-Jobson, and recently John Irwin in his Studies in Indo-European Textile History has prepared an extensive glossary of textile terms in which the Indian equivalents are given wherever possible'.

Yet Chaudhuri warns ‘us against the danger of inspired guesswork when we are dealing with names which have now disappeared from current usage in most cases. Florence M. Montgomery, assistant curator of Textiles at Winterthur, in her Textiles in America 1650-1870, (New York, Norton W.W. & Company 1984), p.360 quoted Savary des Bruslon’s comment that many of these exotic textiles ‘have names, dictated by fashion or by the fancy of the manufacturers, so bizarre that it would be both useless and difficult to give them all, aside from the fact that their names rarely last through the year in which they were created’. Furthermore it seems that many of the textile names were not deemed appropriate for western consumers. For example there are over 20 different names for muslins in the East India Company records, which when they reached English shops were called generically just ‘muslins', belying the astonishing range of qualities, weights and textures that they encompassed. As John Irwin noted in his groundbreaking work on Indian Textiles in the East From Southeast Asia to Japan, (London, Thames & Hudson 1998) ‘Sometimes it is possible to link … [surviving examples] with the textile names that appear in dry lists filling the records of the European trading companies and abound in European travellers’ acts, but the brevity of the descriptions and the use of terms no longer current have made it exceedingly difficult to establish a detailed concordance’. The same is relevant to Indian textiles traded to the west. Donald C. Wellington in his French East India Companies: An Historical Account and Eecord of Trade, (Lanham MD, Hamilton Books 2006) contains an appendix that gives a detailed glossary of 326 textile terms. But as Brigitte Nicolas Chief Curator at the Musée des Companies des Indes, in Lorient observes: 'The glossary published by Wellington is the most complete as yet, but it is unfortunately not illustrated and thus poses a puzzle that no collection catalogue has yet been able to solve ... such a purely intellectual understanding is nothing compared to what one might learn from contact with, and visualisation of these textiles. The lack of a collection of referential textile samples transforms their acquisition, if they even exist to be acquired, into a major challenge that must nevertheless be attempted'.