Thursday, August 21, 2014

Madras checks, Santhome stripes - A tribute to Madras

I found an interesting anecdote While reading S. Muthiah’s “Madras miscellany – A decade of People, places and potpourri”. It is full of anecdotes about the people & places and other potpourri of Madras . It appeared by the same name as a column in “The Hindu” for a decade.

In potpourri section, Journalist and Historian S. Muthiah relates an incident where a group of architecture students arrive from Chiba university near Tokyo to make a comprehensive study on the architecture and town planning of George town in Chennai. Their team leader Dr. Masao Ando had a gift for him and urged him to open the surprise gift. Inside, he narrates, were two lovely little porcelain white sauce bowl. The white of both were decorated with ribbon-like vertical stripes in varying colours.

                                                         Santhome stripes porcelain bowls which muthiah got as gift.

“Do they tell you something?” Dr. Ando seems to have asked Muthiah. Mr. Muthiah could only think about the splendid lunch they had ordered for them at an hotel “Dahlia” at Japan and asked if it was a reminder of that.

Dr. Ando seems to have laughed and said ‘No” and continues they are a popular design found on Kimonos. This only puzzled Muthiah more when Dr. Ando continued “They are the designs that used to be found on the cloth the Portuguese and Dutch brought from Nagapattinam,Pulicat and Machilipatnam in the 16th and 17th centuries. You call the cloth Madras checks or Madras Handkerchiefs and we in Japan call the design “Santhome stripes”( a place in Madras)

The madras checks, the cotton is soft  and fine that even though the color bleeds and gives a faded look, the the texture feels comfy to wear. I buy them still at tirupur cottons. 

                               Here is where i first came to know about Madras checks and madras handkerchiefs @ Dakshinchitra. this is my only click the rest are credited to  google

Historians claim that Madras cloth originates from 1200s and was made of yarn that had been spun from the tip-skin of ancient trees. This evolved in to a more refined cotton that was very light weight and airy making it perfect for sweltering Indian especially Tamilnadu summers and the colors used for dying were vegetable dyes. Infact, I have heard elders aged 70+ in my family talk about the quality of cotton in terms of 100x80 or 100x100 which refers to the ply. 100x100 ply cotton is supposed to be the best cotton.

The original technique of coloring involved dyeing hand woven white cotton fabric (called gada cloth) in a combination of aliziru (a rust red colour) indigo, (blue) and myrablum (yellow plus white) and all vegetable dyes. The warp and weft of the cloth would be hand woven in a combination of two colours, after which it was washed. With each wash, the colours would smudge and bleed, creating a faded effect( popular as stone wash) . This bleeding colors influenced ad guru David Ogilvy to advertise the Men’s shirts designed in US from this cloth as “Guaranteed to bleed” In 1960’s. The marketing technique led to a fashion statement of men’s checked shirt with a faded effect and the design came to be known as “Bleeding Madras” in the US.

Today madras checks does'nt fade since vegetable dyes are replaced with color fast dyes.

These versions of gada are renowned as Madras Check. Today Ralph Laurel comes out with Madras plaids called the checks in Chennai bleeding Madras in America..Also, the madras shirts, shorts or jackets became popular on the campuses of Ivy league schools in the United states.

The same  check designs that are immortalized in the famous lungi of the “Lungi dance”.

This humble “Madras checks” aka “ santhome stripes” or “Bleeding Madras” is Madras contribution to the sartorial world.

And this post is my tribute to my birth city “ Madras” which celebrates its birthday on Aug 22. This city is where Modern India began. Almost every institution in India from the Army to the Judiciary, from medicine to engineering has had its origin here.

                                    Happy Birthday Madras aka chennai


  1. Lovely post. A nice slice of Madras history I knew nothing about. Its amazing how globalised the world was even in those days. Santhome checks in japan ?????

    A class post from you.

    By the way, where can I get the shirts in your photo :):):)

    1. Thank you Ramesh. Reg. those shirts, those are from google:)

  2. Happy birthday to a great city MAdras ...


    1. Thanks on behalf of madras. Hope this city retains its character while absorbing the change.

  3. Thanks for the nice post on Madras. Until now, never heard of Santhome stripes. But heard of bleeding Madras. When I think of Santhome, I visualize the Church.

    1. for me too, santhome means church and that beach also.

  4. A very good chronicle about Madras Checks. Wasn't it "Guranteed to Fade"? Jus checking ....

    Ram N

  5. Thank you, Ram. The article i referenced read "Guaranteed to bleed".