In Japan gingham has spiritual connotations. In Indonesia gingham represents good and evil. When one colour overlaps the other, that is where the two are reconciled. In Africa the Masaï tribe claim that gingham has been worn by their herdsmen for thousands of years. In India a little gingham cloth, called the gamucha, has long been part of everyday life. Working men wear it over one side of their shoulder, mopping their brows with the cloth as they toil in the sun, twisting it around their heads to carry the luggage of railway passengers or spreading it on the ground to take a nap. In Cambodia a similar piece of gingham cloth, called the krama, has been a traditional item of clothing since the 13th century. It has many uses, from a simple sarong to a makeshift hammock for babies – often seen strung up between two sugar palms while the mothers work in the paddy fields.
The root of the word is still debated. Some say it comes from Guingamp, a small town in Brittany where the fabric was once made. But most agree that it derives from the Malay-Indonesian word ‘genggang’, meaning striped (before gingham was checked, it was striped).
It entered the English language in 1615, probably through Dutch and French traders. These traders would travel from Europe to East Asia, visiting countries such as Dutch-colonial Malaysia, Indonesia and India. With their plentiful supply of plants that could make rich, colourfast dyes – including madder, turmeric and indigo – these countries could easily produce the sought after brightly coloured textiles. Pieces of gold and silver would be exchanged for the prized gingham cloth that was then sent back on ships loaded with muslin, calico, chintz and spices.
In the mid 18th century, during the industrial boom, Manchester’s cotton mills took over the production of gingham. Importing cotton and dye, the mills produced vast reams of the cloth to be turned into dresses, toiles, trimmings, handkerchiefs and children’s smocks.
Many years on there is still something universally pleasing about this small chequered pattern. For autumn we have worked with weavers in India to create a soft cotton gingham double cloth.
Words by Emily Mears
Shop the Double Faced Gingham Shirt Dress and the whole Early Autumn Collection here.
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Gingham is the fourth in a series of stories – under the title The Holy Variety of Everything – that we’ll be telling through this late summer, autumn and winter. These stories celebrate the varied cultures, traditions and crafts that have blended, in one way or another, into this season’s collection.