Muslin Fabric : Its History and Rebirth

Muslin Fabric Its History and Rebirth

Muslin Fabric : Its History and Rebirth

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This muslin fabric was extremely light, soft, and smooth as the wind. There were many types of muslin in different names. The most beautiful of these names is ‘Bafat-hawa’ which means ‘hand-woven wind’. The name was given by a royal poet. According to one traveler, a 300-foot-long muslin cloth could be easily inserted and removed through a ring. Another said that 60 feet, or 18 meters, of muslin fabric, could easily fit into a pocket-sized snuff box. Dhakai muslin was so transparent and thin. 

History of Muslin Fabric

At the end of the 18th century, a new fashion was imported to Europe. The imported fashion scandal spreads in the international arena. A whole section of society was accused of going naked in public. The main culprit in this scandal was Dhakai Muslin. The cloth was not like today’s muslin. Muslin fabric of that period was made in 16 steps. The rare variety of yarn used to make the cloth was grown on the banks of the Meghna. Dhaka Muslin has reigned with tremendous popularity all over the world for thousands of years. Muslin was considered one of the properties of that era. From the costumes of the goddesses of ancient Greece to the countless emperors who came from distant lands, and the Mughal emperor and his descendants all wore muslin.

Nineteenth-century satire, the danger of wearing muslin in public. Risk of exposing the body after exposure to fine muslin in the sun or rain.

Traditionally this expensive cloth was used to make saris and dresses. It was also used in men’s tunic-like clothing. Muslin radically changed the style of dress of the aristocracy in the United Kingdom. Scottish painter Isaac Cruikshank painted a caricature of a group of women dressed in muslin. In that caricature, every fold of the body, including the buttocks and breasts of every woman wearing brightly colored muslin, was visible. Below the satirical picture was written: ‘Parisian woman in winter clothes in 1800.’

Criticisms of Muslin Fabric

There were many other negative criticisms of fine fabrics made of muslin fabric at that time. In this context, one such satirical article published in an English monthly magazine can be mentioned. In the article, it is seen that a tailor is giving knowledge about the latest fashion clothes to a female customer. He assures the woman that it will not take more than a moment to adapt to the latest fashion. The tailor then asks her to take off her first dress, then her corset.

Then he says, ‘Look, as soon as you take off your clothes, you are wearing the latest fashion clothes.’

Despite so much criticism, Dhaka Muslin fabric got tremendous success. It was the most expensive dress of that era. Numerous celebrities were fascinated by muslin, including French woman Marie Antoine, Napoleon’s wife Empress Joséphine Bonaparte, and author Jane Austen. But surprisingly, as soon as muslin took its place in Europe, the cloth seemed to become extinct.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Dhaka muslin disappeared from every corner of the world. Muslin now only survives in museums and some private collections. Now no one knows the technique of making these clothes. And the cotton Gossypium arboreum var. neglecta, locally known as “Phuti karpas” used to make muslin also became extinct.

Cotton to Make Muslin Fabric

Dhakai muslin fabric was made from the cotton that could be obtained from the trees growing on the banks of the Meghna. Every spring, the maple-leafed tree grew on the gray, alluvial soil. Twice a year yellow flowers bloom on adult flowering corpus trees. Snow white cotton fibers could be obtained from this flower. These were no ordinary fibers.

Today, 90 percent of the world’s cotton comes from the Gossypium Hirsutum in Central America. A very fine and long type of fiber is obtained from this cotton. Gossypium hirsatum is said to be a cousin of Footy corpus. However, the fibers from the footy cotton were shorter and thicker.

The process to Make Muslin Fabric

The cheap yarn could not be made with the help of industrial machines with the short fiber of footy cotton. It was quite difficult to work with this yarn. The locals, working for thousands of years, invented a remarkable technique to bring this unruly yarn into the bag. Muslin fabric was made in a total of 16 steps. Each step was done by a different expert. It took so many experts to do the work that few separate villages were built around Dhaka with them. There were several such villages in present-day West Bengal. Muslin fabric was made not only by men but also by women, children, young and old.

In the first stage, the yarn cocoons were cleaned with local river canals. The next step was to cut the yarn. High humidity was required for this work. So, the work of this step was done in the boat. A group of skilled young women used to do this work very early in the morning and the last afternoon sitting in the boat. Because the weather is the wettest at these two times of the day. Adults did not usually work in spinning. Because they could not see this fine thread with the naked eye.

Sonia Ashmore, the author of a book on muslin in 2012 and a design historian, said: There was a kind of rough feeling on the surface of the thread. As a result, it would have been better to hold the threads.

Finally came the weaving process. It would have taken a month to complete this step. Classic jamdani had various geometric-shaped flower designs. There was a lot of silver thread in this jamdani.

Wonders of Asia

At first, Western buyers did not want to believe that Dhaka muslin fabric was made by human hands. There were also rumors of muslin weaving jinn-ghosts, mermaids, and fairies. Again, many said, these are made underwater.

The same weaving system still exists in this village. But now substandard muslin is made with ordinary cotton instead of footy cotton. In 2013, UNESCO declared Jamdani as a cultural heritage.

The main achievement of muslin fabric is its count. The higher the fabric count, the more comfortable and softer the fabric will be. The count is the number of yarns per square inch of fabric as there are vertically and horizontally.

Dhaka muslin became extinct a hundred years ago. However, sari, tunic, scarf, and other garments made of Dhakai muslin fabric are still preserved in various museums intact.

Colonial Market

“The British East India Company destroyed the muslin fabric trade just as they expanded it,” – Ashmore said.

Muslin fabric was sold all over the world long before the elite women of Europe started wearing it. Ancient Greeks and Romans liked it very much. Two thousand years ago, an unknown Egyptian merchant wrote about the muslin of India in his book The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

The Roman writer Petronius was probably the first to express surprise at the transparency of this fabric. The muslin fabric has been praised by many, including Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan explorer in the 14th century, and Ma Huan, a famous Chinese traveler in the 15th century.

Undoubtedly, this dress has passed the golden age during the Mughal period. The South Asian Empire was founded in 1526 by a warrior from present-day Uzbekistan. From then until the 16th century, the empire ruled the Indian subcontinent. At that time, Akshar muslin was traded between merchants in Persia (now Iran), Iraq, Turkey, and the Middle East.

The Mughal emperors and their wives loved this dress. They would not wear anything other than muslin fabric. The emperors used to find the best weavers from far and wide and bring muslin from them. He used to give them jobs directly. The best clothes were forbidden to be sold to anyone else. There is a rumor about the transparency of muslin, Emperor Aurangzeb once rebuked his daughter and said why she came naked in public. But her daughter was wearing seven layers of muslin cloths.

British Liked Muslin Fabric

Muslin was moving fast. But at that time the British emerged. The British East India Company had conquered the Mughal Empire by 1793. Less than a century later, the whole region came under British rule.

The first exhibition of Dhakai muslin was in 1851, in the United Kingdom. The idea for the show came from Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. He aimed to amaze the subjects by showing them all the priceless and wonderful collections of the British Empire. More than one hundred thousand items from all over the world were brought to the exhibition. The exhibition took place in the glass hall of the 1,752-foot-long and 128-foot-high Crystal Palace.

At that time the price of a yard of Dhakai muslin fabric was 50-400 pounds at today’s value it is 7,000-56,000 pounds. The price of the best silk was one-sixth of that.

Victorian Londoners were talking about this garment, while its makers were in financial trouble due to debt. The book ‘Goods from the East, 1600-1880’ describes how the East India Company entered the Dhaka muslin business in the late 18th century.

At first, the company removed local customers and brought the British Empire as customers. They take control of the whole business by adding strange rules to the production process. Workers are forced to weave more muslin at lower prices.

Special skills are required to make cloth from footy cotton. This process is very laborious and expensive. At the end of the day, only eight grams of fine quality muslin could be obtained from one kg of cotton.

British to Start Production of Muslin Fabric

The weavers began to struggle to supply the clothes as per the demand of the company. As a result, they are burdened with debt. They received only a fraction of the cost of a garment that took a year to make. If the British did not like the dress, they would have to pay back the full amount. In this cycle, weavers have never been able to get rid of debt.

The final push comes because of the competition. Colonial institutions such as the East India Company were busy documenting the industries on which they had depended for years. Muslin was no exception. They write down the details of each step of making clothes.

As the demand for luxury clothing increased among Europeans, they were encouraged to produce cheaper versions of muslin fabric in their own country. Samuel Oldknow, a textile merchant in Lancashire in northwest England, used information from the inner courtyard of the British Empire to spin large quantities of cloth to supply London with a large supply. By 1784, a thousand weavers began to work under him.

However, due to the quality of the muslin made by the British, Dhaka could not even come close to the edge of the muslin fabric. British muslin is made from low-quality cotton. The yarn count would have been less. Also due to war, poverty, and earthquakes, many weavers in the subcontinent started making low-quality garments. Others started farming instead of occupation. As a result, the entire industry became extinct.

The knowledge of how Dhaka muslin fabric was made was lost with the passing of generations. There is no artist left who is as skilled as a silk weaver. Footy corpus could not be grown anywhere other than the banks of the Meghna. Those weavers of legend are also lost.

Rebirth of Muslin

Saiful Islam was born in Bangladesh. He moved to London about 20 years ago. He first knew about Dhakai Muslin in 2013. Saiful Islam, who works in Drik, was offered an exhibition of these garments for Bangladeshi audiences in Britain. Drik then thinks, there is not enough information about the cloth. So, they started researching on their own.

Over the next year, Saiful Islam and his colleagues met with local weavers. Explore the area where muslin fabric was made. Visit samples of muslin fabric kept in European museums. He said that although there is a large collection of this cloth in Europe, it is not available in Bangladesh.

Their team eventually organized several exhibitions on muslin fabric. He also made a film and published a book written by Saiful Islam. At one point they begin to think, there is a very small possibility of bringing back this legendary costume. For that purpose, they established Bengal Muslin.

Rebirth of Footy Corpus

The first task was to find suitable trees. Although the seeds of the footy corpus are not currently in anyone’s collection, they find their dried, preserved leaves in the Royal Botanic Gardens. From this, they were able to sequence the DNA of the footy corpus.

After unraveling the gene mystery of the tree, the team left for Bangladesh. Combining modern satellite imagery with a historical map of the Meghna, he explores how the course of the river has changed over the last 200 years. Then he used that image to find out the possible birthplaces of footy corpus. After that, Saiful Islam’s team grabbed the old map and plowed 12 km. Find out if any of the plants in this region have any resemblance to the ancient painted footy cotton.

Footy Corpus

Whenever a tree was suspected, its DNA was sequenced and matched with the original tree. Eventually, an 80 percent match was found with a bush tree. To grow this tree, Saiful Islam first selected a piece of land on a small island in the middle of the Meghna river in Kapasia, north of Dhaka. The land was very fertile due to siltation. In 2015, some seeds were sown experimentally there. Within a few days, several feet of the corpus was raised through the dry soil. A century later, the lost footy corpse returned to Bengal.

In 2015, the team collected their first batch of cotton. Although that cotton was not enough to make 100 percent pure Dhakai muslin fabric, Saiful Islam worked with Indian weavers to create a hybrid yarn in a mixture of ordinary and footy cotton. The next task was weaving. The task is more complicated than Saiful Islam thought.

New Start of Muslin’s Weaving

Since weavers in Bangladesh are still making Jamdani muslin — even though it is inferior in terms of count — Saiful Islam hoped that with a little training from these weavers it would be possible to make quality fabrics close to old muslin fabric. But none of the weavers agreed to do this. When Saiful Islam wants to make 300 count clothes, they say it is just madness. After talking to twenty-five weavers one by one, Al Amin finally agreed.

Most of the weavers in this region are poor, working in ordinary slums. So, a heat and humidity-controlled workplace was created for Al Amin to work. Meanwhile, the 50 types of equipment used to make muslin have also become extinct. So Saiful Islam made those tools himself.

Shana is the name of such a tool. This device, made of a small piece of bamboo, has thousands of artificial teeth to hold the fine threads in place at work.

Al Amin worked hard for six months. He brought a lot of corrections to the yarn, then he was able to make a 300 count sari. Although the sari is not close to the original Dhaka muslin fabir in quality, it is undoubtedly much better than the work of the present weavers.

From then until 2021, Saiful Islam’s team made several saris from their hybrid muslin fabric. They have already been displayed all over the world. Some saris have been sold for a few thousand pounds. Looking at the popularity, it seems that muslin fabric has a bright future ahead.

Final Words

Although the old land has to be abandoned due to the flood problem, Saiful Islam is still growing footy corpus. They are now cultivating the revived tree on another land along the river. Islam hopes that in the future they will be able to make more countless authentic Dhaka muslin fabric. The Bangladesh government has also supported their project. Who knows, future generations may be able to walk around wearing pure muslin fabric!

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