From Chennai with love: Madras checks

How well do you know this world famous print?

Chennai’s contribution to global prêt-a-porter is the Madras plaids or checked garments.

India’s contribution to the sartorial world is the hand-woven Madras checked fabric. Since the 1960s when ad guru David Ogilvy trotted out the campaign for shirts, “Guaranteed to bleed” , the bleeding Madras or plaids have found their way from shorts,  handkerchiefs and checked curtains, besides, shirts and coats.  

  • Check out Ralph Lauren’s collection of what Americans call Madras cotton plaids and Yankees call Bleeding Madras. In Madras they are simply called checked shirts. Such is the continuing tradition of the checked shirt in men’s wear that a little town near Oregon in North America is named Madras. In France, Madras simply refers to a plaid fabric or garment.
  • Textile historians date the first Madras to ancient times when the renowned weavers and dyers of Madras and its surrounding villages first made ‘gada’ (or cotton fabric) from trees. Hand-woven cotton cloth was then exported to Africa and Middle East to be knotted as turbans. In the 16th century hand-held block prints and temple and floral imprints on the Madras cloth made their appearance.
  • The Madras checks were first produced when the local weavers began to imitate the patters on the tartan weaves worn by the Scottish regiments then in Madras in the 19th century. The tartan weave has stripes crossing at right angles in traditional hues of red, blue, green and white and browns.
  • The Madras since the 1830s could refer to a cotton hand woven shirt in plaid designs. Americans visiting the Caribbean noticed them and soon the Madras were shipped to North America where they made it to posh colleague campus styles.  As the dyes used by the Madras weavers were vegetable pigments the colours would run with a wash and soon became a design pattern called Bleeding Madras.
  • Today machine made checked fabrics and garments are mass produced but Chennai has not yet forgotten its first love for Madras.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Sudha is a senior commissioning editor with Lonely Planet India.