What is Madras Fabric?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Madras fabric is a light, cotton fabric that is typically associated with summer clothing. The name is based on the initial inventors of the fabric style, the Eastern Indians and especially on the black and red check fabric that was exported from Madras, India. This material is now made in a variety of checked patterns, for example turquoise and pink checks were popular in the 1980s preppy style. It was enjoyed as a preppy look much earlier, and is referenced in S.E. Hinton’s novel, The Outsiders as preferred by the rich kids.

Madras fabric owes its name in part from the red and black check fabric exported from Madras, India.
Madras fabric owes its name in part from the red and black check fabric exported from Madras, India.

Early madras fabric was not always colorfast, which actually some people enjoyed, since the look of the fabric changed each time it was washed. This enjoyment might be slightly less for people who washed it with white shirts or other light colored clothing. You could easily end up with pink or grey underwear or socks if you weren’t careful.

Madras fabric tends to shrink when dried in a clothes dryer.
Madras fabric tends to shrink when dried in a clothes dryer.

Today’s madras fabrics tend to be colorfast, but still has an unfortunate tendency to shrink slightly. If you’re trying to decide on a size in a shirt, shorts, or skirt, consider sizing up if you plan to dry the fabric in the clothes dryer. Otherwise, be sure to only wash it on a cold water cycle and hang it to dry. In warm summer months, the lightness of the fabric can easily dry it within a day or even sooner if the fabric is dried outdoors on a clothesline.

You can buy some versions of madras that contain polyester. True madras fabric should be 100% cotton, though. Adding polyester can create a more durable, colorfast, and less easy to shrink garment, but it also takes away from the lightness of the fabric and will not keep you as cool when you wear it.

Madras fabric never truly goes out of style. You’ll find it just about every summer reflecting the current fashion trends. When crop pants became popular in the 2000s, summer styles introduced madras crop pants, often with a simple elasticized and drawstring waist. Very thin madras can be somewhat see-through, so if you’re choosing it for dresses, or skirts, do consider a garment that is lined or consider adding a slip underneath the skirt.

You can also find some madras fabric made with seersucker, essentially plaid with puckered seams that promote even more comfort. This is probably some of the coolest fabric you can wear on the hottest days of the year. Occasionally, the cheerful checks and colors of the fabric are used to fill other household fabric needs. Madras plaids can made for curtains in a kid’s room. The fabric tends not to be used for upholstery, since its lightweight nature contributes to less durability.

The kurta, a type of long shirt, is a common article of clothing in India.
The kurta, a type of long shirt, is a common article of clothing in India.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Madras fabric best symbolises the preppy look of the Kennedy era, New England, and Maine and the coastal destinations across the Eastern United States, though it is more reflective of a style rather than a destination.

Madras fabric is available as patchwork plaids, or regular shirt type madras plaid.

I bought some of the patchwork kind at Atlantis Fabrics.


@ Showered72- Madras is such a versatile Indian cotton fabric. While Ralph Lauren is known for their preppy madras shorts, there are also many other laid back options for madras clothing. There are light madras dresses for women and girls that are great for a lazy summer day.

Men can find madras shirts that are casual enough to wear with a pair of Khaki shorts and flip-flops. I wear madras on the hot days in Phoenix. I think it is all in how you dress it up. Sure madras shorts can be preppy with an oxford with the sleeves rolled and a pair of boat shoes, but you can also wear a pair of loose fitting madras shorts with a faded tee shirt. I like madras simply because it is easy to match, and it is great for the desert.


Madras and seersucker are frat boy staples, particularly at Southern colleges and universities. The light weight fabric is not really dressy, but comes across as slightly less casual than jeans. Southern fraternity enthusiasts prefer the light weight material because of the height occurring below the Mason-Dixon line. Also, madras and seersucker are easy to find, thus the uniform frat boy look is easily achieved.

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