The Global History of the Bandana

The Global History of the Bandana

Long before American cowboys sported bandanas, the European snuff user of the 18th century suffered from an embarrassing problem: Blowing his nose into a white or solid-colored handkerchief left behind dark tobacco stains. He found a stylish solution in India, where textile makers employed a millennium-old tie-dyeing technique called bandhani to create colorful silk and cotton kerchiefs covered in lively patterns. After the Dutch and English East India companies imported these kerchiefs to England, snuff-takers embraced them to make their habit more discreet, and the name was anglicized to “bandana.”

By the early 19th century, Europe had started producing its own bandanas, most notably in Mulhouse, France, where dye producers developed a version of Turkey red, the color most commonly associated with bandanas today. The original dye was made of sheep dung, madder root and olive oil, and applied to fabric through a process so complicated it inspired “all sorts of industrial espionage,” says Susan Brown, associate curator of textiles at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. The familiar paisley pattern imitated Kashmir shawls. …

By Laura Hilgers, Smithsonian Magazine

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