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Toponyms: Fabrics with a sense of place

December 18, 2008 | 12:00 pm

Rage_madras2 The theme over at's A Word A Day is "Toponyms from India" -- today's word being "calico." Wordsmith's definition is as follows:

1. A brightly printed coarse cotton cloth.
2. (Mainly British) A plain white cotton cloth.
3. An animal having a spotted coat, especially with red and black patches.
1. Made from such a cloth.
2. Having a spotted pattern.

From Calicut, former name of Kozhikode, a city in southern India from where this cloth was exported.

It reminds me of the final paper I wrote for a college class called Geography of Place Names. Titled: "A Survey of Toponymically Derived Fabric Names" (really!), my paper took a look at the textiles derived from their place of origin or discovery. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was setting me up for not only a stint as a game show question writer, but also for my future career here in the Image section.

You'd be surprised how many there are. "Madras" is another (a port city in Southern India also known as Chennai) as is "dungarees" (named after an area called Dongari Killa, near Bombay).
In fact the coarse indigo fabric also known as blue jeans and denim can credit all three names to places ("denim" from "serge de Nimes" -- Nimes France, and "jeans" for the Italian city of Genoa).

It's of limited application, I'll admit, but it's been a great ice breaker. I dropped that last tidbit on Lucky Brand Dungarees founders Barry Perlman and Gene Montesano (pictured above in a 1998 file photo) at the MAGIC trade show in Las Vegas when I first met them, and ever since then, every meeting begins with a lightning round of trivia.

Now you know.

-- Adam Tschorn

Photos from top: a madras bathing suit by APC, photo by Robert Lachman/Los Angeles Times; Barry Perlman, left, and Gene Montesano founders of Lucky Brand Dungarees, pose atop a stack of jeans in a 1998 file phot shot at their Vernon, Calif. warehouse.