One of the greatest treasures of the 18th Century - Muslin is an almost transparent, loosely-woven cotton fabric made using the 'plain weaving' technique. It had an elaborate 16-step process with rare cotton that only grew along the banks of the Meghna river in today’s Bangladesh.
It is said, that the finest Muslin was so thin, lightweight and breezy as the wind that an entire muslin saree could fit inside a matchbox. Yuan Chwang, a Chinese Buddhist monk and traveller who came across the fabric while visiting India in 629 AD, wrote that muslin is like ‘the light vapours of dawn’.
History of Muslin
Muslin which is believed to have originated in Dacca, now known as Dhaka in Bangladesh, truly had global patronage. Going back thousands of years, the fabric was deemed worthy of clothing statues of goddesses in ancient Greece, emperors from distant lands, and generations of Mughal royalty. In the 1600s, Muslin was introduced in Europe, the fabric was an instant hit as it was lightweight, easily washable, versatile and more economical than silk. The French called Muslin, ‘mousseline’ - cloth of silk and gold.
While the European traders gave the name ‘Muslin’ from Iraq’s Mosul, Dhaka is often considered to be the originator of the fabric. However, the fabric was distributed across the world not from Mosul but from ancient Bengal (present-day Bangladesh).
Types of Muslin
Post-1600s, Dhaka muslin became the most expensive fabric available across the globe. Manufacturers came up with varieties of the fabric - experimenting with weight, transparency, texture, and form. A minimum 100 by 100 thread-count fine loom cotton was called a pure Muslin.
Here are the main grades of muslin:
Gauze: It is said to be an ultra-lightweight, sheer form of muslin used for clothes, as a filter in the kitchen, and to dress wounds.
Mull: Lightweight and plain form of muslin, Mull is usually made from cotton and silk. It is commonly used for dress underlining as it gives a shape and structure to a garment.
Sheeting: It is the thickest and coarsest form of muslin, often used in clothing and homewares.
Muslin and royalty
Traditionally, premium muslins were used to make saris and jamas – tunic-like garments worn by men but in the West, it transformed the way of royal dressing. Muslin put an end to the highly structured dresses of the Georgian era- the typically worn five-foot horizontal waistlines were out, and delicate chemise gowns became the new fashion statement.
Muslin gained enormous popularity during the Mughal rule - Persian motifs like booti and traditional embroidery gave a new face to the fabric and the era became its heyday. It was commonly known as ‘Dhaka ka molmol’ because of the Dhakai weavers’ skill-set and speciality.
Mughal emperor Akbar who widely promoted cultures and heritage from different parts of the Mughal empire announced Dhaka as Bengal’s capital. The decision eventually gave Muslin the space to be made exclusively for the imperial households. It was Akbar who deemed muslin suitable for India’s summers and designed the Mughal jama - men’s outerwear with a fitted top and a pleated skirt falling to below the knees.
According to a legend, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeb-un-Nisa was scolded for wearing a ‘transparent dress’ in the emperor’s court. She responded that her attire, in fact, consisted of seven separate layers of Muslin.
The decline of Muslin
In the pre-independence era, India’s textile industries of Dhaka, Malwa and Banaras were considered world-class and fabrics were exported throughout the world. However, heavy taxation (75% export tax), banning of Indian textiles in other markets and exploitation of Indian weavers by colonisers eventually killed India’s small scale textile industries.
With the heavy burden of costs, handloom workers found it difficult to continue their livelihood and decided to move to other occupations. The shift eventually dried up the skilled labor in the field, causing further decline.