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An Industrial Miracle in a Golden Age: The 17th-Century Cloth Exports of India
by Bennet Bronson, Associate Curator, Asian Archaeology and Ethnology
(Written at the time the exhibition, "Master Dyers to the World: Early Fabrics from India" opened on January 29, year unknown - probably 1982 or 1983.)

At the end of January, a new special exhibition, "Master Dyers to the World," opens at Field Museum for a three-month run. The subject of the show is cloth, much of it of cotton, most of it two to three hundred years old, and all of it woven and dyed in India. Some pieces were once very cheap; others were worn by kings. In a number of ways, they -- or rather, they and the hundreds of millions of cloths like them that have now vanished -- may be the most important of all textiles.

A glance at those illustrated here will reveal one of the reasons why this is so. Many are astonishingly beautiful, made with a skill in handling fiber and natural dyes that may never have been equalled. The exhibition includes no fewer than six of the ten-odd Indian cloths that are known to have survived from the 17th century, a golden age when the prestige and skill of Indian textile artists are said to have reached heights never attained before or since. Two of the cloths in the exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum Hanging and the Riboud Textile (both of which are too large and detailed to be illustrated here) are actually famous. Several are so brilliantly designed and flawlessly made that they may well rank among the best individual pieces of cloth in existence.

Yet, their beauty and technical perfection may not be the most interesting features of these cloths, for they also stand for a critically important historical phenomenon. In their day, Indian textiles of these types were made and exported in very large quantities. More of them, in fact, were shipped abroad than any other industrial product of premodern times.

True, China had long sent moderate amounts of its silks to places as far away as Rome, while the English as late as the 18th century felt that their most important export was fine woolen cloth. Indeed, the majority of early states seem to have produced at least some textiles for international markets. Woven fiber products made good export commodities, being always welcome to fashion-conscious foreign elites as well as being unbreakable, easy to carry, and valuable in proportion to their weight. The volume of such early textile exports, however, was almost always small. Only in the case of India did the trade involve more than a few hundred or thousands of expensive cloths per year, destined for wear by a small and wealthy minority.

It is possible that this pattern of "splendid but trifling trade" in luxury items was broken by Indian merchants at a fairly early date. The "Master Dyers" exhibition includes a number of rather coarse, utilitarian-seeming Indian textiles found at the 15th-century site of Fostat, in Egypt. Even earlier fragments of exported Indian cloth have recently been found at Queseir on the Red Sea (see Bulletin, June 1980) by Donald Whitcomb, formerly a curator at Field Museum, and Janet Johnson of the Oriental Institute. The Queseir cloths may be as early as AD 1300, and prove beyond question that trade in non-luxury textiles between India and the Middle East existed at that date.  However, we have no means of determining the quantities involved. Medieval sources have not preserved statistics on Indian textile exports.

The earliest adequate statistics to survive come from the records of the great Dutch and English East India companies, which followed the Portuguese into Asia in the early 1600s and almost immediately found that they had to use Indian textiles to buy spices in Indonesia; the growers were not interested in cash or, seemingly, in most other commodities. The Dutch and English companies both, therefore, became involved in exporting Indian textiles, at first to consumer markets within Asia but soon to consumers in Europe, Africa and the Americas as well. The two companies are important in economic history as the first of the great multinationals and the first corporations with modern-style stockholders and boards of directors. Fortunately for us, they were also the first commercial organizations to maintain really good records, and these are what make it possible to reconstruct the 17th-century Indian textile trade in considerable detail.

Briefly, what the records show is a pattern of rapid, almost explosive growth. In 1610, European-and Asian-owned ships were already carrying about ten million yards of cloth to Southeast Asia and the Middle East, plus a few yards of samples to Europe. By 1625, the within-Asia volume had doubled. In the 1650s, the Asian trade had begun to level off at 25-30 million yards, but several million now went to Europe and Africa. A trickle was even reaching the new colonies in North Americaone of the first Americans to own an Indian textile was the accused witch, Anne Hibben, who in 1636 was said to have a number of items made of imported calico in her Boston home.

In the late 1660s, European imports passed the ten million mark and continued to rise sharply, reaching a yearly average of between 35 and 40 million by the early 1680s; in the peak year of 1684, the English East India Company alone imported 45 million yards of Indian cloth -- more than six yards for each man, woman, and child in Great Britain. If one adds in the exports carried by Dutch and other Europeans and by the then very native Indian and Arab traders, it seems clear that in 1684 Indian exports to all points totalled more than 100 million yards.

Given the spectacular nature of Indian export growth and the fact that this was well publicized at the time, it is no surprise to find that the European textile industry was already in an uproar by the late 1670s. By the early 1680s, it was in a panic. Industrialists and lobbyists made impassioned appeals to parliaments and kings. Public relations men and concerned citizens (among them Daniel Defoe, the author of numerous social tracts as well as of Robinson Crusoe) produced a flood of pamphlets and newspaper articles claiming, quite plausibly, that hundreds of thousands of European textile workers were about to starve and their national economies irreparably damaged. Unpatriotic wearers of Indian-made cloths were denounced and occasionally assaulted in the streets. Cries for protective legislation were heard in every European capital; some suggested punitive customs duties and others, outright prohibition against importing or wearing Asian cloth.

Eventually, after considerable opposition from the various East India Companies (of which there were then four, none overly concerned at the whining of a handful of unimportant textile workers and industrialists), the new laws were passed and the Indian threat receded. Much smuggling, of course, continued, and fashion-conscious people of both sexes went on being just as unpatriotic as usual. One Western European nation, Holland, even failed to pass the required legislation. But these sequels do not concern us at the moment.

What matters is the extraordinary situation that existed in the early 1680s when, as seems quite clear, a collection of simple and undernourished brown people in an exotic country managed to pull off an industrial miracle. They had already succeeded in eliminating most of the local textile industry in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Now they had come within an ace of displacing even the powerful and traditionally successful textile makers of Western Europe. They had in fact done something that had never been done before. For the first time in history, a manufactured non-luxury product made in a single country was on the verge of dominating the consumer markets of the entire world.

The question is, how could this have happened? What was the secret of Indian success? How is it even possible that a collection of impoverished, mostly illiterate weavers and dyers living in backward villages in remote parts of Asia could compete on a more than level footing with the long-famous textile industries of western Europe? In what conceivable way could they do this when their product had to be shipped twelve thousand expensive milesaround the southern end of Africa -- before it could be sold in competition with European cloths made with the most modern machinery only a few miles from the marketplace?

Spokesmen for the hard-pressed European industry had several answers. They hinted at a plot by the giant (and indeed, ruthless) East Asia companies to monopolize the textile business by selling at a loss so as to bankrupt all competitors, They decried the irrationality of feminine fashion, which chose frivolous Indian stuffs over honest English (or French, Dutch, etc.) broad cloth. And they complained constantly at the unfairness of having to compete with the extremely low-cost labor of India.

All of these assertions were undoubtedly in a sense correct. Yet, as might be expected, the cloth makers of Europe did tend to view the situation in a rather one-sided way.

The vast power of the East India companies, for instance, was clearly a factor but hardly a decisive one. At the time, the companies had little real control within India. The weavers and dyers were not their employees, and neither were the wealthy middlemen with whom they contracted each year for delivery of given amounts of cloth; the companies' factories often had to buy their supplies on the open market just like anyone else. They were not even the biggest buyers in that market.

Native Indian merchants owned ships as large as the Europeans and regularly carried more cloth and other goods to some of the major foreign markets (to the Middle East, for instance). Further, the companies faced what a modern corporation would regard as an intolerable amount of overhead: arbitrary taxes and bribes exacted by officials in both Europe and Asia; the two-year period needed for their ships to make one round trip, eating up interest and maintenance costs all the while; constant losses from shipwreck and piracy; the need for fortifying all trading stations and hiring private armies and navies to protect these; and -- on top of everything -- the startling dishonesty of their own employees in an age when bribes and kickbacks were normal practice but conspiring against one's employers was considered bad from everywhere except, apparently, among Europeans stationed in Asia.

Thus, although the companies seemed to make astronomical profits from the textile trade, their margins were in reality quite thin. What kept the cloth they sold competitive was good accounting and  good market research based on careful tracking of sales and constant experimentation with new patterns and fabrics. It could well be argued that the European textile industry's main problem was bad management. They might have had much less trouble in fighting off the Indian challenge if they had been nearly as good at the marketing side of their own business as were the East Asia companies.

The idea that consumers were buying Indian instead of French or British cloth simply from frivolity was of course just wishful thinking. As far as one can judge from the few samples that survive, the Indian cloth was actually better: at least as beautiful, more practical, and a good deal cheaper than anything comparable on the market.

The beauty is evident. The designers in India, about whom little else is known seem to have worked much like their modern counterparts, staying in close touch with producers and buyers, creating patterns targeted at the specific needs of certain markets, and actively experiment with new weaves and patterns which might expand a market or create one where none had existed before. Surviving cargo manifests show that it was a rare shipment in the 17th century that did not include special bundles of samples or "new-style stuffs," apparently aimed at testing and rechecking consumer tastes. The two Europe bound cloths illustrated on pages 12 and 13 are of types that were as nontraditional to Indians as to Europeans; the patterns of both probably originated as special samples created in the early 1700s, a period when tastemakers in Europe were particularly interested in novel designs.

Further, both the old and the new designs for export cloths tended to be well executed by the Indian weavers and dyers, who seem to have been capable of handling an unusually broad range of techniques and of changing these rapidly in response to shifts in demand. One of the difficulties of studying 17th- and 18th-century Indian textiles is guessing where they came from, when one knows that hundreds of clothmaking villages in several parts of India were quite capable, if necessary, of adapting to the production of almost any type of cloth.

We might note in passing that the high quality of Indian designs is proved not just by the few cloths that have survived but by the reactions of European manufacturers, who may have denounced the frivolous imports in public but who were apparently in private making every effort to imitate them. They continued doing so for more than two hundred years. As late as the 1830s, when the Indian economic challenge had been crushed by colonial armies and by the Industrial Revolution, the bulk of the colored cloths produced by the power looms of Manchester in England and Lowell in Massachusetts were still called by Indian names such as ginghams, chintzes, and calicoes and were printed with flower designs nearly identical with those shipped from India to Europe two hundred years before. In fact, 17th-century-styled chintz is still being made. It can be seen, used for sofa covers and curtains in almost any furniture store.

On the other hand, good styling and able marketing were not the only things, and perhaps not the main things, that sold a product back in that remote pre-advertising age. Consumers then were at least as impressed by practical qualities as by esthetics and image, and this was where the superiority of Indian cloths was perhaps most evident. They came in colors which could be washed repeatedly without fading. Being mainly of cotton and cotton-silk mixtures, they were far more comfortable for wear in warm weather and indoors than were the traditional woolens and linens of Europe. And, of course, they were economical. Many were outstandingly cheap, and even the most expensive types were more durable than any non-Indian cloth that could be sold at a comparable price.

The important point here is that differences in practical qualities cannot be explained simply in terms of marketing ability and a cheap labor supply. European clothmakers tried such explanations but were no more convincing than a modern American manufacturer would be if he tried to attribute the success of Japanese television sets to the same factors. Modem Japan, as we have all become aware, makes good electronic equipment because it has technology as good as or better than its foreign competitors. The same conclusion appears to apply to the comparison of 17th-century Indian and European textile industries. India was not at all backward. In fact, incredible as it may have seemed to their competitors and in spite of the apparent simplicity of their looms and other equipment, Indian clothmakers were in many ways far ahead of Europe in scientific understanding of their trade.

This is perhaps most obvious with respect to the Indian knowledge of dyes. The key to giving permanent colors to plant fibers like cotton and linen is the proper use of mordants -- compounds of iron or aluminum which intensify and fix dye colors by causing them to "bite" into the surface of the fiber. India had a whole range of these as well as dyes that were better to begin with. They also employed their mordants in complex ways, typically using two different mordants at once and then blocking off other areas of the cloth surface with a "batik" wax resist, making it possible to produce several colors with a single immersion in the dye vat. An important Indian innovation was the use of special pens and several kinds of wood and wood-and-metal printing blocks to apply both mordants and resists making the process much faster and, if desired, enabling the dyer to produce patterns of  astonishing complexity.                        

Contemporary Europeans seem often to have thought that India had discovered a mysterious method of painting or printing dyes directly onto the cloth, but dyers there had no more luck with this approach than anyone else in the days before modern chemical dyes. What the Indians painted or printed on were only the colorless mordants and resists; they achieved their actual colors through soaking cloths in conventional dye vats. The general idea was by no means a commercial secret. Yet European dyers had much trouble with it, even when using imported Indian dyestuffs. Few of their colors could withstand washing, especially when the cloth involved was of linen or cotton and often too when it was of wool or silk. It seems to have taken more than a century and a half of experimentation before Europeans learned how to make the full range of dye colors truly permanent on plant fiber cloths; not until the 1750s does one begin to find British dyers claiming that their own chintzes were just as good as the authentic Indian product.

One of the more interesting sidelights of this particular issue is its connection with sanitation. Europeans had worn colored linen cloth for thousands of years before they came in contact with Indian dyeing technology. The question is, how did they wash these? The answer be, as rarely as possible. Some unmordanted colors are not safely washable even on easily-dyed woolen cloths, and almost none are fasten linens and cottons. Early wearers of Indian imports tended to exclaim that the colors actually became brighter after washing. As in the case of similar statements about Oriental rugs, naturally this was an exaggeration. But it was also a bit ominous if one thinks of what it implied about all the people who were wearing non-Indian colored cloth. We have little definite data on the atmosphere of public places in Europe between the Neolithic (when flax and cotton were first domesticated) and the 17th century, as the noses of even the acutest social critics tended to be desensitized. However, it is tempting to think that the new Indian dyeing technology had an effect on public health that was at least as significant as its role in fashion.

Other technological advances by Indians were more important in keeping prices low than in improving the quality of the product. Methods of applying designs by using blocks rather than brushes had been perfected in India long before the first European contacts. In spite of the difficulties of preparing whole sets of finely carved and precisely matched blocksas many as five or six sometimes had to be fitted inside one other, each for a separate colorthe block-stamping technique was a clear improvement in terms of the speed with which cloth could be decorated. Low-priced textiles for sale within India and on the African and European markets were generally produced in this way.

Much of this market was of great interest to European textile manufacturers, who saw enormous potential in sales to slave traders, Caribbean plantation owners, American Indians, and poor people in their own countries. Yet here again imitating the methods used in India proved quite difficult. Intensive research and experimentation in cloth "printing" (on imported Indian white clothEuropean cloths were apparently not smooth and even enough) began in England as early as 1650. It was not fully successful until about 1750, and continued to be done with Indian-style flat wooden blocks for another quarter-century before the introduction of the faster and almost equally precise copper-cylinder rotary printer.

Another advantage of the Indian textile industry was its access to large supplies of cotton, a plant which grows well in Indian soils and which as the most high-yielding of major fiber crops is intrinsically the least expensive material for making cloth. Europeans also sometimes cited this as one of the reasons why Indian competition was unfair. Yet, using Indian-style cotton also required technological know-how which contemporary Europeans had still not developed.

Spinners and weavers in Britain during the 17th century are said to have had trouble even with the long-stapled (and comparatively unproductive) Sea Island cottons of the Caribbean, and it took many years before they could handle the high-yielding short-fibered cottons which India had always used. Their success in learning how to gin and spin such cottons was in fact a key element not only in the Industrial Revolution of the 1770s through the 1790s but in the tremendous growth of cotton plantations in the American South.

One could probably find still more explanations for the earlier industrial success of India: an outstandingly flexible financial system, organizational methods that involved a much greater rationalization of production than in Europe (where weavers as late as the 1700s often still spun their own yams, dyed their own cloth, and even made it up into tailored clothes), and entrepreneurial attitudes among the merchant classes which were at least as strongly developed as any such attitudes in Europe. However, I will not get into such topics here. It is enough to emphasize once again the extraordinary fact that India in the 17th century came very close to controlling most of the world's textile markets, and that the explanation was by no means as simple as their embattled competitors claimed.

A story that has been hinted at but cannot be fully told here is that of the long-range European response to the Indian challenge, for this would involve nothing less than describing the origins of the Industrial Revolution. One wonders whether anyone alive in the 1680s could have imagined such an outcome. Assuming that such a person was aware of the now widely recognized role of textile industries as keys to industrial development (in most nations, clothmaking has been the first industry to be mechanized, and profits and know-how from that have tended to be the mainspring of growth in other economic sectors), would he have had any idea of what was actually going to happen?

Would it not have been most logical to predict that free trade would eventually triumph, that the superbly efficient textile makers of India, in tandem with the heavily capitalized East India companies, would eventually overwhelm their European competitors, and that Indian capitalists would then mechanize their mills and move onward to the improvement of their (already highly regarded) iron and steel industry?

It is in fact one of the more tantalizing and least recognized might-have-beens of history. If things had worked out only slightly differently, the Industrial Revolution might have taken place in India. We could now be living in a world where Indian tourists complained constantly about the squalor of England and where Europe and North America would be underdeveloped quasi-colonies whose main function was providing raw materials for the insatiable factories of Bengal and Gujarat.

Among the reasons why this did not happen were the high quality of 18th- and 19th-century European armies (which eventually seized the main Indian textile-producing centers and thus found a noneconomic solution to the problem of unfair competition) and the surprisingly open attitude of European textile manufacturers. As pointed out earlier, these manufacturers had been thoroughly frightened back in the. 1670s  and 1680s and so had lobbied hard for stringent controls on Indian imports. When they got the tariff protection they wanted, however, they seem not to have succumbed to the normal tendency to relax into old and inefficient ways. Instead, they initiated a major, long-term program of research and development.

They made intensive studies of Indian weaving, cloth-printing, and dyeing methods. Slowly and then with increasing speed they began to learn. By 1760 they could imitate all except the very finest of Indian cloths. By 1785, after two decades of remarkable innovation, they had made most of the key inventions of the Industrial Revolution and were in a position to sell good cotton cloth even more cheaply than the Indians.    
By 1790, the clothmakers of Britain had become apostles of free trade, denouncing all tariffs as obstacles to economic progress. By 1800, Indian textile exports to Europe had fallen almost to zero and were dropping sharply in Africa and North America.

The final symbolic victory of the Europeans did not occur until 1830. In that year, or possibly in 1831, in the early summer of the Industrial Age when Britannia already ruled the waves and most of India as well, the mills of Manchester shipped forty million yards of cotton cloth to India. They thus matched for the first time the quantity of cloth that had been exported in the reverse direction, from India to Britain, almost a hundred and fifty years before.


Thanks are due to Dr. Mattiebelle Gittinger and other members of the staff of the Textile Museum of Washington, D. C., the originating institution for the "Master Dyers to the World." The Textile Museum has gone beyond normal professional courtesy in helping with the Field Museum version of that exhibition. Further, it has allowed not just its photographs but its printer's actual color separations to be used as illustrations in this article.

Dr. Gittinger conceived the exhibition, went through the arduous loan negotiations connected with it, and wrote the remarkable catalogue listed in the bibliography below. This looks as well on a coffee table as any exhibition catalogue. However, it is also a ground-breaking work of historical and artistic scholarship. Most of the captions for the color plates in this article are partially borrowed from it. So are some of the ideas, although Dr. Gittinger naturally is not responsible for the present author's mistakes.

BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE                  

While most of the data given here can be checked in readily accessible sources, a few conclusions are based on economic statistics culled from the Daghregisters, the voluminous daily records kept at the Dutch East India Company's headquarters in Batavia. These data will eventually be published in full, but interested readers are invited to contact the author if they find anything in this article that seems to contradict the standard works listed below.

ON INDIAN CLOTH                

Gittinger, Mattiebelle

1982. Master Dyers to the World Trade and Technology in Early Indian Dyed Fabrics. Textile Museum, Washington. (The catalogue for the 'Master Dyers' exhibition, with detailed color and black-and-white plates of all notes, and important discussions of various theoretical issues.)

Irwin, John and Kathenne B. Brett                                -    '

1970. Origins of Chintz. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London. (A good and well illustrated treatment of the types of chintz exported to Europe.)


Chaudhuri, R.N.

1978. The Trading World of Asia and the East India Companies, 1660-1770. Cambridge University Press, London. (Definitive statistics on the cloth trade and other commercial activities of the British East India Company.)

Glamann, Kristof

1958. Dutch-Asiatic Trade, 1620-1740. Danish Science Press, Copenhagen. (Though much less comprehensive than Chaudhuri, the best available statistics on the cloth trade of the Dutch East India Company.)


Steensgaard, Nils

1974. The Asian Trade Solution in the Seventeenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. (Important for updates and comments on van Leur's theories, though focused mainly on trade in the Middle East.)

Van Leur, J. C.

1957. (late 1930s) Indonesian Trade and Society, Essays in Economic and Social History. W. van Hoeve, The Hague. (The seminal work of its field; many disagree with van Leur but everyone quotes him.)


Baines, Edward

1966. (1835) History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain. Frank Cass and Co., London. (A massively well-informed view of the Industrial Revolution by an intelligent participant. Baines is much more conscious than most later writers of the debt owed by British cloth makers to their Indian predecessors.)


The India trade of the 17th and 18th centuries brought not only cloths to the West but a new textile vocabulary as well. Much of this vocabulary survives in English, sometimes so well integrated into our language that most of us do not think of them as foreign words.

Bandanna. From Hindi bandhnu, a method of tie-dyeing. In the 19th century, a bandanna was a rich yellow or red silk handkerchief with tie-dyed white diamond-shaped spots. In the 17th century, it was a small cloth, perhaps ikat-dyed, from Bengal.

Calico. From Calicut, an important city in south-western India. Once a pattern-dyed cloth in several colors, the term was later used in the textile industry to mean a grade of fairly fine, plain-woven cotton cloth often undyed. A memory of the earlier meaning survives in the phrase "calico cat."

Cashmere. From the name of a kingdom, later a province, in northern India. The very fine and soft goat-wool cloth of Kashmir is still highly esteemed, though most cashmeres are woven or knitted elsewhere, often with mixtures of less costly sheep wools. Cashmere shawls, the complexly embroidered cloths from Kashmir that were common here and in Europe m the late 19th century, were not necessarily made of cashmere wool.

Chintz. From Hindi chint and Sanskrit chitra, "spotted" or "variegated." In the 17th century, a cotton cloth with block-printed or hand drawn patterns. Modern American-made chintzes are glazed printed cloths, often with flower designs, used as curtain and upholstery fabrics.

Dungaree. From Maharastrian donggari, a type of plain, coarse, strong cloth, usually white or blue. Dungaree was used for sailors' work clothing as far back as the 17th century.

Gingham. Perhaps from Malay-Javanese gingang, a name used locally in Southeast Asia and by European traders for a type of Indian cloth. 17th century ginghams were fine striped silk-cotton textiles made in Bengal. All-cotton imitations were later made in Coromandel and, eventually, in Europe and the United States. Some were striped and others checkered.

Gunny. From Sanskrit goni, "sack." Since the 16th century, a sturdy but very coarse cloth woven from jute fiber, employed mainly for making sacks in which grain, cotton, and other loose goods are stored and shipped.

Khaki. From Hindi-Urdu khaki, "dusty, dust colored." Various sorts of strong, light-brown cloth used for military uniforms. The idea that khaki might have advantages over brightly colored does not seem to have occurred to the world's armies until a few British units began wearing it in northern India in the late 1850s.

Muslin. From Mosul, a city in Iraq. The term originally applied to a silk or silk and gold cloth woven in and around Mosul, but traders in India during the 16th century began using it to refer to extremely fine cotton cloths from Bengal. Its modern meaning comes from this Indian usage, though our muslin bedsheets are less delicate than the legendary white muslins of Dacca, said to be so fine that wide pieces could be passed through a woman's ring.

Pajama. From Hindi-Urdu pae-jama, "leg clothing."  A pair of loose trousers tied around the waist. In European usage, the term came to include a loose shirt as well. Pajamas were popular among Europeans in India long before they migrated to England and the United States in the 19th century.

Percale. Possibly from Tami1 percaula, "sparkling." Since the 17th century, a plain white cloth made in south India for use as a base in chintz-making. Percales were originally less fine than muslins.

Seersucker. The etymology is unknown but probably related to such vaguely similar 17th-18th century cloth names as sestienne, sukerton, and sarasse gobar. In the 18th century, seersucker was a mixed silk-cotton striped cloth from Bengal.

Taffeta. From Farsi taften, "to spin." A fine silk cloth, originally from Bengal in the 17th century. Modern taffetas can be of silk or artificial fibers and are characterized by their lustrous surfaces.

Tussore. Perhaps from Sanskrit tasara. "shuttle." A rough silk cloth woven from cocoons of wild silkworms. The term goes back to the 16th century, when it meant an inexpensive type of wild silk from eastern India.