For centuries a popular type of textile used by the Igbo people in Nigeria is called ‘George cloth’. During the 20th century this type of cloth became popular among a much wider group in Nigeria and among Nigerians living elsewhere in the world. In the Netherlands it is known as Madras cloth. While many know that the cloth originates from India, the question remains: what exactly is ‘George’ or 'Madras' cloth?
It would seem that there is no consensus concerning exactly what makes a Nigerian George cloth. Sometimes it is described as ‘plain George’, while other forms are known as ‘fancy George’. There are also checked (tartan, plaid) Georges with embroidered squares, plain Georges with gold coloured thread woven into it, not to mention embroidered Georges with floral motifs using sequins and mirrors.
Going a little deeper, there is a story behind the Georges that dates back to the 17th century. In 1611 the British East India Company set up a factory (trading post) near the fishing village of Madraspatnam in southeastern India. The region around the fishing village was well-known for the quality of the cotton spinning and weaving. The British merchants encouraged weavers to produce textiles that were then traded and exported from what became known as the city of Madras and since 1996 is known as Chenni or Chennai.
This is the beginning of the huge international trade in what became generically known as Madras cloth or Madras-doek in the Netherlands. The story continues because the Dutch took Madras cloth to their colonies in the Caribbean and West Indies, including Surinam and Curaçao. This type of material is still known in the West Indies as Madras.
It is understandable why the cloth is called Madras, but why is it also called 'George' in Nigeria? In 1639 the British were given permission by the rajah of Chandragupiri to build a fort near Madraspatnam, which was called Fort St George after the English patron saint. It would appear that since at least the 18th century any cloth produced in the vicinity of Madras and traded in what is now Nigeria and elsewhere was called a ‘George’, while elsewhere it was known as Madras. It also explains why there is no clear definition of George cloth in Nigeria, as it ‘simply’ means a southern Indian woven cloth that can be plain, striped, checked, or decorated with some form of embroidery.