From the Madras to the Shuka, the check is a textile pattern that is transcultural. Yet… is that the humble root of the cloth itself?
I have taken myself on a journey of crawling the texts to see what I can find about the origins of these textiles, where they originated, and by whom they were worn. A lot of my findings come back to colonialism, and how these textiles were transported and taken from one place to another- where they then seemed to take their own life upon landing.
Some of the most wonderful late 70s and 80s dresses that my mother owned had these checks on them. Etched into my memory, which is full of patterns and prints that are connected to people and places.
The dresses I wore, that uniform that I HAD to wear when we moved to Kent in 1998. The shirt of my blessed late sister I have and wear to this day, alongside her and my Dada’s (paternal grandfathers) PJ bottoms that I roam around in all my cosy hours of journaling and reading.
Most recently, my connection finding this check show up in St.Lucia, where I found that Travellers Palm, and my spirits calm.
Are you connected to cloth?
There are some checked dresses that I know my Bapuji (maternal grandfather) made: he, after immigrating to London in the late 60s from East Africa where he had a tailoring shop, continued working in the industry alongside his wife until their retirement.
So even with this connection to Kenya, and my Mother telling me stories of how she would see the Maasai people growing up, draws me to this cloth connecting communities and cultures beyond what our naked eye tells us.
The Shuka cloth is known as the African blanket, worn by the Maasai people in East Africa. With it’s beautiful brightly checked patterns, often reds, with black stripes this cloth is hardwearing to sustain the harsh weather.
Image Credit: Jack Carter
The origin of this cloth and how the Maasai people came to be clothed with it is not confirmed, though said- to be either that it was actually a form of payment during the slave trade that LANDED in East Africa during the colonial era, or that is was brought in by Scottish missionaries, again in the colonial era.
Better known as tartan, plaids… and yes a blanket, that may make sense as the Highlands would need these heavier ‘blanket’ like weaves. How I look is going back to the simplest part of this pattern, which is the check.
This being through some research- though if we take this a note back, if these checks were brought in by the Scottish- it leads me to then look further back at the origin of ‘their’ checks.
The origins of the check?
One of the oldest places this pattern was found was on a 3000 year old mummy, Cherchen Man, found in China. Then in the 16th-17th Century in South India, the Coromandel Coast. Seen in paintings in temples, with figures who were dressed in checkered cloth.
You see a swatch here in one of John F. Watsons 18 Volume collection of samples of Indian Textiles.
These samples were collected in the sight of having them copied, and manufactured in the West, not taking that intricate artisan weaving origin from into stock. The samples went on to be shown at exhibitions in London & Paris.
This is much later- then the time of origin which I am seeking, though is that just as simple as the origin of cloth and weave itself?
Image Credit: Ugandan Crafts
Cloth is made up of warp and weft, and essentially as soon as you cross those fibres for a certain number of weaves either way you are going to LAND on a stripe or a check… So where did the art of weaving come from or begin?
Here we land in the Paleolithic era, where humans have known to weave, flax weavings had been found in Egypt dating back to 5000 BC.
So whereby the colonial gaze takes up SO much of the precious artisan works that ships and shapes them all over the world. We must know that the humble beginnings were and are the humble beginnings. Look past, and into the depths of the origins of the pieces you own, make them your own, love them, care for them.
Right back where we started on this little musing?
As always, this is a snapshot into my world of discovering how we are all intrinsically connected by cloth. It spans far and wide, times long before we know, and with that, I believe something that should be honoured, preserved and loved in that way.
The people that create these textiles today, the impact they have on them, and the energy in which they are produced all hold value.
Something to ponder upon, next time you lay your eyes on a check.
You will find some checks emerge in our LANDED collection, this fabric is a vintage cloth, Thai Silk, from the 1960s, otherwise destined to landfill. This textile was found in a warehouse due to be demolished/renewed, where a builder took it home to his wife who listed it on Ebay.
I LANDED on this silk, just as I embarked on sourcing second hand cloth for this exploration.
So with that, may your eyes understand the story, that’s written deeper than just a pretty check shirt, that you will see so soon.