Mar
05
2009

Did old-fashioned gingham always have checks?

Gingham checks  (photo by PinkMoose - CC-BY)

Gingham checks (photo by PinkMoose - CC-BY)

Gingham and checks belong together nowadays. It’s hard for us to imagine striped gingham, but it wasn’t always so. Striped gingham used to be popular, and it was only in the 20th century that we started to assume gingham must be checked.

Gingham actually means cloth made of cotton that’s been dyed before weaving, not fabric printed with coloured patterns, or dyed after it’s taken off the loom. Now it’s generally a simple cotton check of one colour plus white, except for a few furnishing ginghams, but of course yarn-dyed cotton can also be woven into stripes.

In the Sears Roebuck Catalogue for 1897, while most of the ginghams have checks, there is one fancy striped gingham that they say “will make up pretty in children’s and ladies’ dresses”. At 15 cents a yard it was more than 4 times the price of the cheapest “apron checks”, and 3 times more than the basic “dress ginghams”. Some of this cloth had different colour combinations from what we’re used to – blue with red, and brown with black – and some of it was three-colour plaid. You could order a “full piece” of many fabrics at a discount. A full piece was 50 yards of a 27 inch width. (46m long,  69cm wide) Would this mean co-ordinated dresses, shirts, and kitchen curtains for one family?

So who wore striped gingham? It was certainly used for women’s everyday clothes in the 19th century, but well-dressed children might wear it too. An 1828 London magazine’s fashion section described a girl’s outfit made of “pink striped gingham, over a pair of cambric pantaloons, double frilled, with broad muslin round the ankles; the frills richly embroidered at the edges…”. It goes on in detail about the trimmings, the ruffle, the cute hat with ribbons etc.

Men also wore striped gingham. English-speaking gentlemen sometimes wore jackets of it in hot climates, and in parts of Asia the fabric was made into tunics. (Gingham comes from a Malay word meaning ‘striped’.) In 1850s Alabama a Major Kendrick had a hunting shirt of “pink-striped gingham…girded with a belt of the same”. The writer tells us it was “the approved thing” there though he found it rather peculiar.

Plain gingham was used for umbrellas. Sometimes a Victorian umbrella was actually called “a gingham”. And perhaps you’ve heard the old American song about Isabella and her Gingham Umbrella? In England in 1852 wholesale prices had “reached such a low degree of cheapness that a child’ s gingham parasol may be had for fourpence, a woman’s for tenpence-halfpenny, a small silk parasol for the same, and a gingham umbrella for sevenpence”.

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1 Comment

  • Larry says:

    It seems so obvious that it is hardly worth mentioning, but gingham is always woven with “balanced” stripes, ones of egual width, whether just striped or as a check.

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