The Myth of Muslin Fabric- A tale of Royal Heritage
The first time I heard about muslin when I was a kid. My grand grandmother used to tell us stories about her wedding sari. She said the sari was so soft and thin that my grandfather carried it in a matchbox. Of course, I didn’t believe that. I imagined if the story is true then the matchbox must be giant in size, and not like the boxes we are familiar with.
Time has passed and with this passing time, my concept about muslin has changed. Now I know muslin really did exist. Muslin fabric had a very glorious history about. Muslin fabric is one of those precious things, we the Bangladeshi people, especially local residents of Dhaka are very proud of it.
Muslin Fabric – The History we need to know
To know about the colorful history of the muslin, we have to travel back to the primitive time when Indus Valley civilization belonged. Yes, the archeologists find some samples which have some common features that can be compared with muslin fabric. Some experts assumed that people who belonged in upper-class society had used muslin in their clothing. People in ancient cities like Mahenjodaro, exchanged precious pearls or jewels to get this kind of fine clothes. Powerful leaders, warriors, and their women can only have that kind of cloth for showing their status.
In Iraq, there is a place near the Tigris River there used to be a place called Machilipatnam, which was well-known as Maisolos back then. It was like the entry gate for European merchants in India. The fame of this marketplace was so high that European Businessmen sailed thousands of miles for trading things here. With varieties of items, they also added one kind of soft cotton cloth to their carts.
victoria netting acquainted with Muslin they find some similarities with the cloth they found in Maisolos. Though Muslin and that Maisolos cloth had far more differences, English people find it easy to call it Muslin. And after being ruled by English people for over 200 years it is now impossible to find out what was the real name of Muslin or by what name did the people of this country know Muslin.
What Muslin Is?
In one simple version, Muslin is a cotton fabric. But what things can differ muslin fabric from other cotton fabric cloth that is the main point. There are many surprising and incredible stories. There were even some people who believed that these muslin fabrics is not made by humans. They thought fairies come and gave this to humans. Now you can guess how finest cloth this ancient fabric was that it made people create this kind of gals.
There are only 8 to 10 tread counts of cotton we are using nowadays but a wonderfully made muslin fabric was even made from 2425 thread count. Can you imagine how thin it was?! It just not only light in nature but also soft and comfortable. People need to wear several layers of cloth to cover them up properly. Once the daughter of great emperor Aurangzeb appeared in her father’s courtroom wearing seven layers of muslin cloth. But still, she had to face embarrassments and her fathers’ anger for being so much visible!
What could be called Muslin?
To know the differences between the normal cotton fabric and muslin fabric, we need to understand the thread count. The quality of cotton increases with the rising number of thread counts. If the thread count is less, then it will be considered low-grade cotton. The low tread count cloth usually tends to be heavier, rough, and less comfortable. On the other hand, cloth near 100 counts or more than it, is light, smooth, and comfortable. The cotton that was chosen for muslin was at least 10 times finer than any other common cotton.
About the Cultivation
It was not that simple to make fine muslin. The steps needed to be carefully followed from the very beginning to the end. Choosing cotton was the first and most important part. It was not possible to produce that much fine cloth from any usual cotton. Phuti karpas was that type of cotton from which it was possible to produce fine thin cotton.
The widest river of Bangladesh is Meghna. The villages that rely on this river were perfect for growing Phuti Karpas. The soil of the bank of Bhamaputtra was also suitable for it. Bikrampur, Kederapur, Sreerampur, Rajnagar are some of those villages where Phuti Karpas was cultivated. There is a place in Gazipur named Kapashia for producing quality Phuti Karpas.
Although this plant was cultivated all over India, the Alluvium of Meghna had proven best for that plant. Cotton which was grown in those places later used to make the famous “Dhakai muslin”. Cultivating Phuti Karpas was not an easy task. Strict rules were followed due to the cultivation period to cultivate the best Karpas. After getting the soil and field prepared, seeding had been started. Farmers could only seeds in two seasons, autumn and spring. It took lots of hard work, effort, and compromise to cultivate the karpas plant.
The harvest that finally the farmers got was satisfying. Only 6 kg cotton can be cultivated per Bigha. It demotivated many farmers not to cultivate them. And also It needed to be skillful about the cultivation process and all, some specific group of people only started doing that. As regular farmers didn’t get many benefits from the cultivation of Phuti karpas, sometimes people who related in weaving muslin cloth rented their lands for this cultivation or did it by themselves as a side help.
The Yarn Making process
After harvesting “Phuti karpas” the next step was collecting cotton and turning it into very subtle cotton yarn. Believe it or not, the process of making yarn was much more difficult than the cultivation part. Of course, no one thinks to waste such valuable harvest which cultivation was not less than a hassle. So, the cultivator needed to be extra careful during the harvesting process. The final products were then handed over to the spinner. Like all other steps spinning cotton for muslin was not an easy task.
Months spent on that spinning activities. It included work like separating dust or seeds from cotton, brushing, rolling, pulling, spinning, etc. The cotton needed to be fully prepared before starting weaving. Combing the cotton to clean dust was one of the most important steps among them. To clean it appropriately native people needed one kind of fine comb which could help in separating the dust from the cotton accordingly. To comb better, they needed one kind of brush that contains slender teeth.
But this kind of comb was not easy to find. The weavers’ financial status was always poor, they didn’t have that much money to make that unique kind of combs. But those poor had creative minds, they discovered something from nature to solve their problem. In Bangladesh’s rivers, one kind of fish called Boalee (local catfish) is found. It is popular for its different kinds of jaw and teeth. This strange jaw fish finally showed the way to the solution of wavers. The jaw was perfect for combing those cotton. It combed the cotton finely and removed all the unwanted things.
Yarn Making for Muslin
It’s better to know that all those works need to be done by human hand only. Muslin would not have been possible to produce by a machine back then and not possible even in this digital era like 2022!
After the cleanup process, the actual yarn-making process could be started. The Cotton of muslin was sensitive in nature. It is softer and more fragile than regular cotton. So people who were engaged in making yarn needed special skills and Immense patience. This was the reason the ladies were considered perfect for this job. Environmental effects affected the yarn-making process
Temperate weather was perfect for making yarn to prevent brittleness and to make it thinner as required. From that aspect, a specific period in winter was perfect for making yarn. Winter also helped to generate one kind of electric frequency. That electric frequency proved favorable in making slender yarn. It was really tough for the yarn maker to spin the cotton in summer. Hot weather lowers the humidity of the air which causes repeated rupture of highly sensitive muslin fibers.
It was said that it is not possible to make the yarn without the magic of three fingers. The weight, softness, finishing, and overall quality was depended on that fact. Ladies who were involved in that work had to care that specific fingers of them regularly. Even, they have to avoid some household work in order to protect those fingers from any harm like cutting, damaging, or roughness.
Early morning and late afternoon were considered the best time for spinning. Early morning when the sun still didn’t appear properly made the spinning difficult. The light was also got dim in the late afternoon but the workers had to continue working on that low light to save the yarn from breakage.
People who got weak view sites could not able to do that work. Some history being said that ladies sailed to the middle of the Meghna river to get the perfect weather for spinning. In the middle of the hot summer night, Meghna’s chest was filled with hundreds of lamps by those artisans. Sometimes those girls would start singing to get rid of the fatigue.
Those humming songs create a divine atmosphere in Meghna. On foggy days passing fishing boats were often mistaken and thought those songs sang by the mermaid. Maybe that is the reason why many considered that muslin is made by the mermaid.
But the truth is that the tender hands of those young girls near Meghna could create magic. And several futile attempts of making fine muslin from imported yarn had proven this concept true. Even an English higher ranked officer James Taylor accepted openly that yarn made by local people in Bengla could only create a fine piece of muslin.
Finishing of Muslin making
The total length and weight were measured right after finishing making the yarn. Long-length yarn with light nature was considered the best. Once in a popular newspaper called “Morning Chronicle” published that 9.1 meters muslin weighted only 3 ounces back then. There were no specific measurement tools though. Weavers had to depend on their experiences and expertise.
The total length used to be divided by the weight. If the numbers turned less of a long length thread then it was found to be a good piece. Wise older people came to help the younger and new spinners on this matter. The different color was also applied in yarn according to customer’s expectations but snow-white yarn had its own craze among people.
Pulling was a vital part of preparing yarn for waving. A perfect thread needed to be both slender and strong. To minimize the disturbance in weaving and maintain the quality of those cotton cloths, the yarn had to pass through the pulling test. There were some more essential steps before going for the final weaving work.
Tana Hotan, Shan Badhano, Narad badha, Bu-badha are some local names of those steps. All those preparations showed their color of importance while weaving started.
Measuring the weight of Muslin
Measuring the length and weight was necessary after finish the yarn-making process. These parts helped to categorize the kind of muslin. There were no measurement tools available then. The experts’ eyes were the only hope. But those experts had god-gifted power. There were even wise people who needed only to touch the fibers once to justify the quality.
Sometimes they spread the thread on the ground and measured them by using their hands. Long sticks were also used in that work. Grams or tola was the local counting number then. The length was then divided by the weight. The long length with low weight was considered the best. Those threads also used to be dipped into the Meghnas’ for testifying the strength of the thread.
After completing the preparation the threads send to waiver to give them a cloth shape. Another challenge had started from here! It was totally a hand-dealing process. There was no such machine that could weave 900 counts thread that time. Till today, textile industries could not invent such a machine that may be able to do the job!
It required lots of patience, expertise, carefulness & experience in the process of weaving muslin. Most of all, the love towards muslin inspired weaver to continue that kind of long length work. A fine piece of muslin cloth took a minimum of six months to make. This time limit might change upon the expertise of the craftsman and his assistants.
Time duration to make a unique Muslin
With the demand for different designs and color combinations on cloths, the level of pressure continued to increase. So, the time limit of making a fine unique piece of muslin could never be sure. As a rule of thumb, we can say 10 yards of fine muslin take 2 to 6 months by a team of the weavers.
As said before, this kind of sensitive work needed expertise and experience. Children of the weavers’ families were got to be familiar with the work since their early childhoods. It was in their blood.
The ancestors passed on their talents to the next generation. From the very early stage of childhood, Parents began to train them and gave them ideas about the work. So that they could know the basics before entering at a mature age. It took years to learn the basics and making a fine piece of muslin might take several months from their life.
How they did it – Making Divine Muslin:
It required 2 to 6 months of tireless work of at least three skilled weavers to make a 10-yard piece of fine muslin. Weavers divided themselves into a small group of three. In each of those knitting groups, there was a chief, who used to be the wise one. The chief would lead the whole team. He used to be the person who knew how to bring perfection to work. They could understand the quality of fabric by the touch only. With their hawk-like sharp eyes, they were able to find out any flaws in weaving. They had got great design and color combination sense too.
The other two of the team were worked as helpers. The first helper used to have a little deep knowledge about knitting. He was considered almost prepared for the weaving.
But he has to work according to the chief weavers’ direction. He must follow every step that was guided by the chief. He didn’t have any decision-making power. The chief used to teach them about how they could bring perfection to their work.
On the other hand, the 2nd helper didn’t require so much knowledge. This one will work as a fresher into the team. He is like an intern and will work almost free to gather knowledge. 10 to 12 years old boys were expected for this job.
Muslin weavers were not rich
I personally believe that Natures truly loved those dusty people. And this is why she blessed those people with such valuable knowledge. But, this unjust world didn’t value their knowledge at that time.
In past, the farmers do not get a fair price for their crops. The middleman who has connections with the Superior class got the most benefit. It seems to have become a rule that the people who actually deserve the rewards will only get suffering and disappointments!
The price of Muslin is so high that a piece of fine muslin couldn’t be affordable by the common rich. Only royal families and high-ranked people of the society could only bear the cost. Sometimes, the king and royal guest rewarded their own necklace to those who brought muslin to the royal court. However, the hand of those creators was always empty.
The salary of the chief weaver has counted only one Dirham. With his one-year earned Dirham he could buy only 57 maunds to 70 mauds rice at that time. The assistant weaver could earn only 25 To 50 percent of the chiefs’ income. The apprentice received no financial benefits at all. He had to be happy with his 3 times meals deal. Royal weavers who worked at kings’ loom even did not get a fair price because of those middlemen!
The finished final products after weaving were sent to the laundry to wash. Washing them was expensive & sensitive because this cloth did not deserve ordinary laundry. Considering the sensitiveness, certain laundry factories were set up at that time just to wash muslin. They used the best washing products to clean them. Only natural remedies were used. Any kind of chemicals was not allowed to prevent any damages. Different fruits’ juice was applied to clean a stain.
Oyster shells, alkali, small wood sticks, different kinds of herbal plants, fruits, and fruit juice were acted as weapons of those laundrymen. But those remedies would prove valueless if the magic of those washers’ soft skilled hands didn’t happen.
Back then suddenly Shindhu River got popular for washing those fine cotton. Although there was nothing different in Shindhu water. But some people did believe that Shindhu water made the fine cotton more sustainable. There might be a reason that most of the laundry houses developed near the bank of Sindhu.
Mughal and Muslin
Mughal had a great influence on the history of the Muslin. In India, the practice of producing soft cotton had been started a long time ago. Some investigators could not prove wrong the news that claimed the presence of muslin in the Egyptian mummies!
In the year 1526, the door of India had opened for Mughal. After the arrival of Mughal, The popularity of muslin cotton took on a different dimension. Mughal added a new feather in muslin traditional history. Finally, it got the fame and recognition that it deserved.
Before the arrival of Mughal, muslin was known and used by the upper-class people of society. But during the 16th century, it started to be recognized globally. It was chosen and praised by the Mughals.
The Nawabs of Bengal often used muslin as a tool to satisfy the Mughal emperors and grant their requests. And histories showed that they had succeeded in their strategy.
Nawab Murshed Quli Khan had a great contribution to the introduction of muslin fabric to Mughals. He used to order top qualities muslin to give it to the Mughal king as a gift. He had also sent designed muslin cloth for the Mughal harem. Queen Nurjahan had fallen in love with this soft cotton. Among all the Mughal queens she was the one who chooses muslin and made them available for all the ladies of the Mughal harem.
On hot summer days, those cloth gave harems’ women comfort and relief. Many kings believed that the simple but gorgeous attire matched with the emperors’ personalities. It actually helped them to stand out from the rest. It had a great impact on political issues too.
During the ruling period of Akbar, his general Islam Khan transferred the capital of Bengal to Dhaka. It was the time Dhakai muslin got more exposure. Male members of the Mughal family started to wear designed tops and pleated skirts. Emperor Akbar liked those muslins that had batik and embroidery work inside them. The artistic mind of Mughal always showed in their attire.
Types of Muslin:
The costly nature of muslin always separated it from the common cotton cloths. People who could afford fine clothes belonged to a rich society. Surprisingly, riches had their own categorizations.
According to that category, muslin had been categorized. Each type of muslin had a different making process, prices & indicate different classes. The quality and design pattern also changed with those categories. That is why muslin had got so many names! Some names seemed to have an influence on classical Persian poetries. This artistic manner in the muslins’ name was given by the Mughal emperors in person.
During the 16th century, a very unique muslin had been invented. In India, khas meant special, solid. The cotton that was considered the best in nature, called Mulmul khas. Those kinds of cotton were made only for the royal families. The king himself, and the people who were related to royal families were allowed to use that clothes. Many believed that by wearing that gorgeous cotton, the glory of the king of the Mughal Emperor had been expressed perfectly.
Mulmul was 10 yards long and had 1-yard width. But it had weighed only 6 to 7 tola! (1 tola = 10 grams) Sound unbelievable, right? If that sounds unbelievable to you then the next information will blow up your mind for sure.
One entire piece of mulmul could be passed through by a ladies’ ring!! With this much delicacy, the mulmul khas had succeeded in impressing people that time. People often fall in love with its unique design and natural gorgeous looks. After fulfilling the demand of royal families it was exported for the demand of aristocrats.
Mulbul khas was also a highly qualified muslin. Although its’ quality was impressive, it was considered to be a bit lower than the Mulmul. These cloths were also produced for providing to the royal families. It was so thin in nature, that it could be compared with a spider web. 100 to 160 cubits cloths were weighted only between 6 to 10 tolas. The Nawabs of Bengal preferred to wear clothes made by mulbul khas.
Sarkar- E- Ala :
It was said that the funding for making these significant clothes have come from one specific place in Bengal. Over time, people began to recognize this cloth as Sarkar-E- Ala which was actually the name of that place. These light-natured garments were admired by the Nawabs and Subahdars. They always preferred wearing cloth made by Sarka-e- Ala during summer. It used to be 10 yards long and 1 yard wide.
According to John Taylor, a famous politician, and philosopher in America, Jhuna means fine and this name goes perfectly with these clothes. The thread used in making Jhuna was very delicate. Weavers also reduced the amount of yarn to make it more transparent. Mughal princes liked to wear clothes made by Jhuna during summer, it helped them in getting some relief in unbearable heat.
It had achieved popularity in Mughal Harem too. The women in Harem and the dancers used to make dresses using Jhuna. They liked the way it made themselves visible and attractive in front of the king. It weighed only 20 tolas although it was 20 yards long and 1-yard width.
Shabnam, as the name suggests, was a beautiful and soft cotton fabric. It was compared to the dew of the early morning for being so light and smooth. That is why it was called Shabnam, which meant the dew of the morning. It was said that if the wet “Shabnam” leave on the grass to dry it would be completely invisible, it might take efforts to find it with weak view sight.
Abb-E-Rawan means flowing water. To express the beauty and delicacy of these muslin cloths, nothing but these Persian words was suitable. The length of Abb-E-Rawan was 20 yards and it was 1 yard wide. The light texture, made it weighted less. A full length of cloths weighted only 20 tolas.
There were some funny stories heard about Abb-E-Rawan. During the ruling period of Subhadar ( Royal designation of a provincial governor ) for Ali Bardi Khan once a weaver waved Abb-e-Rawan for him. After finishing the task he washed it and spread it on the grass to dry. When he came back it wasn’t that place. There was a rumor that a cow which was standing beside the cloth eat it with grass not realizing the presence of any cloth. The waver had to leave Dhaka with this allegation of not caring enough! There is no documented Proof against this story. But the story sounds funny, as well as expresses the lightness of the Abb-E-Rawan.
Another type of muslin was khassa. Due to the influence of Persian poetry on the naming of muslin, this name also comes from Persia. The density of this cloth was competitively more than the others. Sonargaon became famous in the 17th century for producing khassa.
An excessive amount of khassa had been produced in Janngal bari, which used to be a village near Dhaka. Muslin which was produced in Janngal Bari got known as Jangal Khassa during the 18th to 19th centuries. The making structure of khassa was a bit different. Later it became known as kusha to British people
Among all those names, Nayan Sukh was the only Bengali name of muslin. It means the comfort or enjoyment of the eye. It was also recognized as Tan Sukh. Tan means the comfort of the body. It was very relaxing and comfortable to wear. People used it as napkins, scarves, and mufflers to show off their prosperity.
This cloth was used in making dresses. Both men and women were preferred to make cloth by Tanjeb. The unique texture had helped people to create an attractive and gentle look.
Sharbanda had its own charm. This was used in making adorable attires. Women had loved to wear Scarfs made by Sarbanda.
Charkona muslin got popular for its geometrical square shape. This kind of cloth was used in decorating dining tables and households. Europeans had made floor matte from that cloth and decorate the house with it in their special ceremony like weddings, Christmas, etc.
Duria or Doria:
Duria or Doria is woven from a special kind of cotton called Bhoga or Siroch cotton. The texture of this kind of muslin was thick. Sometimes, common people could afford also to buy those. It was suitable for children. A famous chef and friend of Jane Austen’s mother once attended a family invitation in 1771. There she met the child member of that family. To celebrate the occasion, all those kids wore muslin cotton that day. Caroline Powys was impressed by those adorable children and their lovely dresses. She even mentioned it in her book later.
Most of us are familiar with Jamdani. But the Jamdani we are familiar with is not the same as the Jamdani were available at that time!
Back then, the designed Muslin was known as Jamdani. Different glittery threads were applied in designing them. It was highly demandable for the wedding ceremony. Religious celebrations days and special occasions were seemed gloomy without this colorful muslin.
Muslin and Dhaka
The book “Glimpses of World History”, which was written by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, has shared information that makes us believe that the root of muslin history is far deeper. The book states that 4000 thousand-year-old Egyptian mummy was found to contain Indian muslin. Arab merchants traveled in India to purchase this particular cloth in exchange for tortoise shells, rhino horns, and various precious stones.
It is clear that the muslin was influential not only in this subcontinent but also in the merchants of another side of the world. But Dhakai muslin broke down all the previous concepts & records. Why Dhakai muslin was so special?
To find out the answer you have to travel back with us to the 1st century. Bengal always stays under the blessing of the Mother of Nature. The climate of this riverine country is always temperate. The silt brought from the rivers in the rainy season makes the soil of Bengal more fertile than any other country in the world. There used to be grown one kind of cotton, called phuti karpas.
That cotton was the main secret behind the exceptional appearance of Dhakai muslin. Although the secret was actually an open secret, no one had ever succeeded in copying it. The bank of Meghna, Shitalakkha, and Bhammaputra used to be fertile for the alluvium, which had made it more suitable for growing karpas. Along with the raw materials, we had skilled people by plain weave make a fine piece of cotton was not an easy task.
This thought always wondering me how the people who spend their entire life eating half-time in a day and wearing rough, thick clothes could make such fine cloth?! Tons of patience and thousands of hardworking were required in that work. There was no such measurement scale or machine. They had only their expertise and that Sharpe sense.
Along with that, they used to complete the journey of making Dhakai muslin. Sonargaon, Nabigonj, Demra, Gazipur, Nagara, Dhaka, Baliyapara, Charpara, Moykuli, Napara, Bashteki, Shahpur, Dhamrai, Kachpara were those places where this heavenly cloth was made. Sonagaon had become the heart of Dhakai Muslin.
African tourist Ibn Battuta traveled to Bangladesh in the middle of the 14th century. During his traveling period, he had noticed to produce the finest muslin in Sonargaon. In the period of the 15th century, Chinese traveler Ma Huan, at 16th English traveler Ralph Fitch and Portuguese traveler Duarate Barbosa had also witnessed making highly qualified muslin in Sonargaon. At the beginning of the 18th century, Dutch traveler Stavorinus also mentioned the premium quality of Dhakai muslin.
All those famous travelers admire the beauty and softness of that cotton cloth. A renowned historian Beisan exclaimed with wonder that how these garments could be made by human hand!
The fineness of those clothes made him believe that it was made by the fairy. The English government had sent Robert Oram to Bangla at the year of 1750. In his visiting period, he had observed the art of making muslin closely. Without any mechanical help or any academic knowledge how the weavers of Bengal had made those delicate cloths had puzzled him. He admitted that the whole credit of this creation should go to the weavers of Bengal.
How exciting the connection between Dacca & Muslin that creates Dhakai Muslin, one of the best fashion Brands on this earth. What an incredible story? Is not it?
The journey of Muslin beyond boundary:
As we discussed earlier in this essay, muslin had a rich trading history. It had succeeded in grabbing merchants’ attention from the very beginning of its journey. India always had a reputation in the textile industry. In the early 1st century Arab merchants traveled all over India with an intention to buy Indian garments products.
At that time, one kind of very soft and light cotton cloths got popular among those foreign businessmen. There is no doubt that the clothes were muslin. Gradually it started to grab the markets of Ethiopia and Egypt by Arabs. This fine cotton got known as Gangetic muslin. But in an essay, “Yate” mentioned using muslin in Greece in the 2nd century BC. It was the Greeks that introduced the fine cotton of Bengal to Rome, China, Thailand, and Europe. The influence of Arab merchants in the Indian Ocean and the trading business surrounded by the Indian Ocean had increased in the 8th century.
It had proven beneficial when Bengal’s cotton reached Basra Baghdad and Makkah through Arab merchants and the Hajj pilgrims. In his writing, Ibn Battuta mentions that Sultan Muhammad Ibn Tughlaq, the sultan of Delhi sent optimum Indian cotton to the Chinese emperor Yuan in the early 14th century.
By those exchanging practice, muslin started to become so popular in Eastern countries like China and Java. Even though people had to pay a very high price, they were still interested in getting it. The history of muslin is very glorious and the journey had been started in India.
In the year 1526 Babur opened the door of India for Mughal and established Muslim ruling. Under the patronage of Muslim kings, Muslin had reached the pinnacle of recognition and popularity all over the world in the middle of the 17th century. It was considered so special that this fine cotton initially was only used by the kings himself and those individuals who were close to the king!
Sometimes it gave as a present to the international friends of kings just to make them feel honored. Slowly it started to being liked by huge numbers of people abroad. Before the Mughal arrival, in the 15th century, Portuguese merchants were engaged in the trading business of muslin and exported them to Europe. British and Dutch had also been impressed by that fine cotton. They joined the trading business of fine cotton in the early 17th century.
In Europe, people were influenced by the French fashion style at that time and liked to follow them to present them stylishly. And those days, silk was the only cloth that would be considered as dignified clothes for the rich peoples. But right after the introduction of muslin in French, the market demand for silk had been decreased. Marie Antoinette and French revolution empress Josephine Bonaparte had given their support and love to muslin. As a result, these cotton cloths got sky-high popularity in Europe.
In a documentary, it was noted that in 1747 the total value of muslin had been stored for kings or sent to abroad was 28,50,000 taka on that time currency. In the book “Photography of Dhaka” written by James Tylor it was quoted that in 1747 the muslin exported only from Sonargaon had the price of 3 lac 50 thousand takas (3,50,000 Taka).
Sonargaon used to be the key point of Dhakai muslin back then. During the visit of famous traveler Ibn Batuta in Bangla, he witnesses supplying those Sonargaon products exporting in China, Indonesia, and Malai Island. European traders started purchasing a large amount of fine cotton from Bengal to fulfill the continuously growing demands of people in Europe.
At first Arab merchants were their main source. Later they started buying from Bengali traders directly. Muslin was considered a true luxury. English traders could collect thick clothes and other items from Bengal at a very low price. But they need to spend a huge amount just to buy one piece of fine muslin.
On the other hand, the products that Europeans brought with them for selling could not create much impression in India. They got very low prices and can only purchase lower-quality cotton in exchange for those products. They had left no option than paying through European coins, gold, and precious stones to get those cotton. The painting of Josephine Bonaparte proved that it was being very demanding and only used by noble families.
These fine clothes had many controversies too. Roman women wore them to show off their long legs and curved bodies. Greek young generation loved to wear dresses made by Jhuna. The critics often made fun of them for wearing such thin clothes in public!
There were many stories about the translucent quality of the Mulmul khas also. One of the most enduring is that of Emperor Aurangzeb scolding his daughter princess Zeb-un-Nisa for appearing in transparent dress made with muslin in the courtroom. She replied, to the astonishment of her father that her dress, in fact, consisted of seven separate layers of muslin. But all those controversies couldn’t hold off its’ popularity.
The uses of Muslin:
This precious cotton had been used for different purposes. Noble people used it to get comfort, some wear it for showing their dignity & prosperity, some just fell in love with its texture.
Let’s discussed the options where muslin cotton had been used.
Sari is an Indian cloth which had been involved with our culture and tradition. Muslin sari used to be a passion for Indian women. Ladies liked to wear that cotton sari on special occasions. Different designs and colors were used to make the sari more beautiful and attractive.
Royal families and Nawabs only can afford cloth made by fine cotton. The common people wore those cotton garments which are much simple in terms of quality. There used to be a specific tailor for this job. It was not easy to give a perfect cut or shape in that much sensitive cloth. Only an expert could do that. If there were found any scars or torn on the cloth it was repaired by a soft hand. Of course, there was no question of risking the loss of expensive fabrics like muslin. So, only skilled people were allowed to deal with it.
Clothing, the dress made by Muslin is one of the most Luxurious Fashions in its golden era!
The soft texture of that cotton is very baby-friendly. It is extremely useful in taking care of newborn babies. As it is very gentle, it does not harm the baby’s sensitive skin. Women used muslin fabrics in making napkins for babies at that time. Apart from that baby garments were also made from it. During summer it had given them comfort and 10 times cuter looks.
In French and Britain, napkins are considered very important at the dinner table. They were like a symbol of dignity and prosperity. Fine smooth silk napkins were therefore integral parts of the aristocratic family’s dinner arrangement. But after the introduction of muslin in European culture the place of silk was taken by muslin cotton.
European ladies and gents liked to wear muslin scarves. It added an extra texture of beauty to their dress-up. Men wore scarf with coats to bring a fashionable look to their clothing. And ladies wore them with gown and skirt. Some cover their head with those designed fine cotton just to look pretty. Common people often wore scarf even if they could not afford a full muslin garment.
The softness of this cloth is always good for the skin. The ladies in the harem used that cloth to clean their skin. It was not hash but gentle than any other pieces of cotton so ladies used it before Appling the face mask or removing makeup.
Curtains and Blanket:
Milk white muslin cotton was used as windows and door curtains to give the home a heavenly look. European noble ladies loved to decorate their homes with those cotton curtains. They were available in different colors and designs also. Using that cotton in blanket cover was also very demanding. The comfortless and distinguished look of the cloth brought a different level of popularity for muslin cotton in households.
This cloth was suitable for dusting and cleaning the furniture. Cleaning the royal furniture in the palace was not an ordinary thing. One kind of muslin soft cotton was used to clean and preserve these valuable resources.
A special gift requires a special kind of wrapper, right? Royal gifts were wrapped in high-quality beautifully designed muslin cloth. In Aristocratic families, this culture was also adapted to show their dignity and taste. They might use a very rare kind of Muslin bag for the same purpose.
Why Muslin vanished?
Whenever we listen to the glorious history of muslin, our hearts fill with pride. But the questions repeatedly disturbed our mind that why muslin doesn’t exist now? Why and how did it suddenly disappear like the dinosaur era? Why the production of muslin suddenly stopped? Why there even couldn’t find a real piece of fine cotton? Here in this discussion, we are going to reveal the truth.
On 23rd June 1757, one bloody battle took place in the Palashi at the bank of Hooghly River. Not only did the British company gain dominance over Bengal by that war, but they also got the opportunity to assert their authority over Bengali and their culture. Muslin was something that empowered Bengali culture. We got to be recognized through it and got highlighted in front of the world. After the defeat of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula, the current Nawab of Bengal in 1757, the control of muslin textile passed to the British company. That fine cotton already had succeeded in creating a massive business figure in the marketplace at that time.
It brought prosperity not only to Bangla but also to the East India Company. In a survey, it was mentioned that muslin brought 75% of business to the company while their own products contributed only 25% of the total wealth. The total contribution of Indian products to the world economy was 25%. The growth of Bengali textile was also outstanding.
People Made crisis
When England contributed less than 2% to the world economy, the muslin grew 16% to 55% in the 14th century. The fact was, the British had no sympathy or attachment for the people of this country. They had just come to rule. keep immense jealousy about the muslin fabric and the autocratic behavior towards it acted like evidence of the allegation. They used to behave Regardless of the importance of muslin cotton in the trading industries. Only wanted to focus on expanding their own products.
It won’t be wrong saying that they force to shut down this sector. In 1747 the net value of muslin exported from Sonargaon alone was estimated at Rs. 3.50 lakhs. Even after East India Company came into power, in 1757 the total market value of muslin all over the world was 29 crores. The company sold it to Europe and Middle East countries. At the year of their victory, they had earned 3 lacs taka only from exporting that clothes to the French. But surprisingly by the end of the 18th century, the total exporting amount had come down to half.
It was not possible to survive expensive fabrics like muslin without state patronage. The inattentive behavior of the British government influenced muslin business badly and as a result, the amount estimate at only 10 lakhs in the middle of the 19th century. Meanwhile, after losing the battle of palashi, the Mughal emperor couldn’t continue the support to drive that luxurious textile. It was the nawabs of Bengal who used the influence of Mughals and brought the industry under their protective shield.
They had realized that this is the only way to sustain this luxurious industry. Although muslin proved profitable for them, the British had focused on popularizing their country and its products.
At that curtail time, the English rulers introduced us to one of their new dictatorial regimes. To force Bengalis to only using their products they increased the tax rate on exporting Bengali goods.
If a Bengali businessman wanted to export Dhakai muslin he had to pay 70% to 80% tax to the Government. On the other hand, only 2% to 4% tax need to pay for importing British products in Bangla. Horrible, right? Wait, no need to rush, the outrages were not finished yet. It was just the starter. The main course came when they decided to cut the thumbs of the weavers to stop producing fine cotton!
The last nail in the coffin served as the industrial revolution that took place in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The British Government had decided to give more importance to machine-made production than hand-made things. Those machines could produce a huge amount of garments items in a very short time. Not only time, but the production cost also come down in using machines.
Making a piece of muslin could be compared as an art. It required patience, diligence, devotion, care, investment, and time. So, no matter how thick, uncomfortable, and qualityless fabrics had produced by that British machine, the muslin that lost its patronage began to lose its shape.
It was always beyond the reach of the common people. So gradually, the cheap machine-made cloths had become succeeded in making a place in the mind of the middle class and lower class people. The company was always there to encourage people to use their products only. To run those machines constantly they needed a huge amount of raw materials. What could be more preferable than a fertile land like Bengal and hardworking people like Bengalis? So, the Company imposed the burden of indigo cultivation on us. They punished farmers if anyone denied cultivating that. The situation was such that farmers did not get land for cultivating grain, so cotton cultivation became impossible for the muslin.
They were constantly inventing new ways to suppress muslin weaving. They hire local janitors to take control of the whole muslin industry. As mentioned before, the whole process of making that fine cotton required a lot of money and those paid employees of East India Company took advantage of this need. Those helpless weavers force to borrow money from English janitors at very high-interest rates.
Then they pressurized them to complete the weaving before time and asked for the interest constantly. But alas!! Those poor people could not meet up the demands of the company even if they worked day and night. They were beaten and oppressed for the opposite interest. They also used to snatch those clothes from weavers and sold them to riches at a very high price.
Fearing persecution by the Company people, many of them left their homes and the ancestral occupation. But the struggle for survival was being carried out by those poor but brave people of Bengal.
A tale of James Tylor & others
It was found in a manuscript written by James Tylor in 1851 that, at that time when the golden era of muslin had almost finished there were still 700 plus families at Dhaka who were continuing the work. But muslin did not last long in that unequal fight. Resistance breaks down when the level of aggression reaches the point where the company cuts off the thumbs of weavers’ right hands!
However, there was a different concept that the weavers themselves had cut their thumbs off to protect themselves from the inhuman torture of the British East India company regimes.
In 1772, a well-known writer William Bolts stated in his book named “Considerations of India Affairs’’ that, some news of cutting weavers’ thumbs were really floating at that time in some local news sites. The intention was clear. Only by Destroying the Bengali textile industry, British east India company could build their own products market. The ashes of Bengali handmade cotton were acted as a fertilizer for their textile business.
Ey Dunbar the Commissioner of Dhaka city in 1884 had submitted a report to the company’s headquarter mentioning the reasons for down-falling muslin from Bengal. In his reports, he narrates three main reasons behind that falling.
- The industrial revolution
- The prevalence of cheap cotton in the Bengali market
- The high tax system on exporting muslin in England
History is always written on the victorious side and after Palashi it was the company that ruled Bengal. It is clear as daylight that the assets like muslin, for some mild reason alone, cannot vanish like that. It is so not fair that the item that had ruled the export industry alone 400 years ago had a short lifespan of only 150 years.
The end of Royal Muslin:
In 1850, the last time we exhibited the Bengal pride to the world court at London in an international exhibition and since then we have been waiting for 170 years!
It’s really painful to see a Heritage like thousand years were gone just due to satisfy the greed of the ruler. One of the most Royal fabric, clothing & fashion were destroyed just to establish own interest of east India company! The world lost imperial Muslin & started an era of cheap industrial fabric.
Today what we do not know as Muslin is not the actual Muslin fabric. In London Museum You might see today the Piece of Mulmul Khass silently shouting the legacy of our very own Hand Made craft, no one able to do. In the Dhaka museum, there are few carrying glorious pasts.
In Europe & the USA today what selling on Etsy & Amazon in the name of Muslin is not the actual fabric at all!
Royal Dhakai Muslin is Back!
Now, I am taking you into the chapter that is personally favorite to me. Be honest and think how you would feel if a story that you heard from your grand grandmother and suddenly comes in front of you in real.
The days of planning only were over, it was the time to take action, to do something extraordinary. The Bangladeshi minister took the initiative and provide her guidance of creating an expert team of seven members by convening the Chairman of the Weaving Board in Bangladesh.
All the intellectual and wise people like Mr. Manzur Hossain the professor of Rajshahi University, Botany, the additional director of Bangladesh cotton development board, Md. Akhteruzzaman, Bangladesh Textile University’s profession Mr. Shah Alimuzzaman, Mahbub-Ul-Alam, General Manager, BTMC Dhaka, ASM Golam Mostafa, who is the Deputy General of Bangladesh Weaving Board and the last member of the committee was Manjurul Islam, he is also working Bangladesh Weaving Board as a Senior Instructor. The committee was formed up of a wide range of people, from Botanist to weave department with inclusion of textile industry.
The new journey of Muslin Dhaka
The experts knew that very clearly that they have to start from the bottom. And at the first step, they must have to find out the plant which cotton was used in the early days. In 2014, the journey towards the dream has been started. To make the committee stronger another seven-member was included.
They are also reputed in their own field. Like Professor Mr. Bulbon Osman from Dhaka University, M Firoz Alam, Botany Professor From Rajshahi University, Professor of Agronomy and Agril Mostafizur Rahman, Chief Planning Officer of Bangladesh waving Board Md. Ayub Ali, The researcher officer Mr. Abdul Alim who is working at Bangladesh Silk Research and Training Institute Rajshahi.
Now that the committee has been formed, it was time to start the work. But as it is to be said that the first stair of success is the most difficult thing to climb, the chronicle had matched exactly in the case of that research team. Muslin is not like any common cotton. Specific cotton, temperature, and the magic of three fingers were those secret weapons Dhaka muslin required.
Finding Phuti Karpas:
The committee knew the recipe but the ingredients were missing! So, they decided to go outside and search for the first ingredient. There were not many acceptable documents about the process of making muslin. Some books like “Spice Plantrum” written by the Swedish researcher Carolus Linnaeus and “Dhakai Muslin” written by Abdul Karim helped the researchers a lot.
Basically, it was the Carolus Linnaeus who mentioned phuti karpas and also stated that it was grown in the eastern part of India and Bangladesh. But due to lack of care and love, the plant has gone away from the peoples’ sight long ago.
It could still survive in the wild shrub, on this reliance, a picture of phuti karpas tree was drawn by an art student of Rajshahi University. The plan was to collect the samples and cultivate them in their research field. To execute the plan they had published the drawings in several national newspapers with a short message to call if anyone saw familiar plant anywhere in Bangladesh.
The news has also been telecasted on BTV and BTV world. Mr. Md. Tazuddin, who followed state minister of Bangladesh Mr. Shahriar Alam on social media had come to know about the issue from a social media post. He decided to contribute to this honorable journey.
Ray of Light:
He allotted leaflet in Schools, college premises placed in Gazipur and also proclaimed the message around the area lived by. The announcement had succeeded in grabbing people’s attention. Gazipur was that place where phuti karpas were mostly cultivated, so there was a strong hope of finding it in that area. The hope didn’t go in vain and they had received news about some plants that look similar to the drawing they had published. Some potential samples of that plants had been collected from Gazipur. Also, the researchers decided to give a try on another sample that was collected from Rangamati.
Total numbers of samples were 38 which congregated from a different place in Rangamati like Bagherhat, sajek, Lalmonirhat, Baghaichari, Kurigram and Longdu. The team was always hopeful about Gazipur since there used to be a place that earned so much popularity in cultivating Phuti Karpas that it was named “kapasia”. So, the news of finding a potential phuti karpas plant in March 2017 brought new hope for those researchers.
They collected the seeds, leaves, flowers, roots, and cotton from those plants. They have grown all those samples in the Rajshahi University botany department field & IBSC as planned.
The result came out amazingly. In the meantime, the team had planned their next move.
One-piece muslin, a tireless tale:
Cotton had been cultivated but how can it be sure that which one is suitable for muslin? The team had predicted that this challenge would be an obstacle in their way of research. That’s why they took refuge to the countrymen for asking them if they owned any muslin or not. The news was published at Prothom Alo in December 2016. Even getting more than 2000 responses, the team had to face disappointment.
They had no choice left but to seek the help of the National Museum of Bangladesh. But, again they failed.
The letter from the ministry, eagerly waiting for 8 months, the desperations! nothing could melt the museum authorities. After being rejected from the Dhaka Museum, the muslin reproduction team had communicated with the National Museum of Kolkata. Although muslin is still producing in Kolkata, the quality was not alike Dhakai muslin. The museum authority had accepted that the cotton brought from south India cannot create the actual fine cotton. Only a four by four inches cloth of Dhakai muslin still seemed elusive to the team.
A team of 4 members packed their bags immediately and stepped forwards on the way to London in July 2017. And, finally, they got the sample for which they have had waited so long. The hope got strong when the DNA sequence of the samples matched with one of the cottons that had grown in Rajshahi.
Mr. Abdul Aziz, a local resident informs the team about that plant. Although it was not possible to repay his contribution, the committee praised him by a mobile phone.
Making muslin thread
The National Museum authority of Bangladesh had given the access through the muslin collection at last but there were found only a tire that was made of muslin cloth.
Now they had the raw material but the dream of reproducing muslin cloth was far more away from them. Muslin was not that thing that could be made by machines. To make thread from those cotton a fully handmade process needed to be followed.
But in this mechanical world, people become dependent on machines. Those weavers who used to make handmade yarn had been forced to leave their profession due to the negligence of people. Mr. Manjurul Islam, senior inspector of “Bangladesh weaver Board” had led the yarn-making team.
The team searches all around the country with the hope that they could find someone capable. But there was no good sign had seen. After searching tirelessly it was come to know that the people who lived in a place called Chandana in Cumilla District still make yarn on the spinner.
But those threads are so thick that the counts were only 8 to 10. There was no option but to take the risk and tried to make the thread with the help of those weavers. Among those weavers, there were few whose ancestors were involved in making yarn for Muslin. They choose 40 people and decided to train them up. Each team had 5 members. 6 best people were finally selected by several competitions of making thin yarn. It took 2 years though. But those 6 people now working as a trainer and had succeeded in trained up 11 people within 6 months.
The Hand made spinner
The most important thing about that job of making handmade thread was the handmade spinner. The den of Textile University, Mr. Manzurul Inslam had personally built it for the spinner team.
There need to use only the three fingers to lose the thread at the time of spinning. This is the step where the magic happened. The better the technique of spinning can be learned, the thinner the yarn will be. During that journey, they compel to take care of those special three fingers.
At first, their fingers had not much sense and feelings. Lotion and moisturizer are left on their hand overnight so that the work of spinning could start from very early morning. They were requested to refrain from doing any household work to avoid the chance of getting cuts or losing the moisturizer of those fingers. It takes time, but the recruited women finally learned it and got successful in making 300 counts threads.
Among the muslin species, jamdani still survives in Bengal. But the quality never imagined being matched with the real one. Only 100 to 150 count threads are used in making Jamdani whereas the lower quality muslin is used to make with at least 500 count threads.
The exam of Patience for Muslin Dhaka
Those boys from Narayanganj had dared to start this difficult task. It required inhuman patience in turning such thin thread into a piece of cloth. Every time they tried to spin it or roll it, they need to face the incident of the yarn slit. They have to find out the ways, change the spinner’s structure and take sensitive decisions. One kind of different starch which was obtainable from rice bran was applied to give the threads more sustainability. To control the humidity of thread they dig soil and place loom underground. Weavers kept weaving in summer days by taking a bucket of water next to them.
6 sari had been made! The first sari was the exact copy of the muslin sari found in the London museum. Rubel and Ibrahim weave the exact same sari that looks exactly like the sari of 1710.
Total 14 crores and 10 lacs taka was budgeted for that project but only 4 crores had been used. The team had handed the leftover money to the Bangladesh government. 6 sari had been produced in total. The research team wanted to gift one of those to our honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The GI Certification: Dhakai Muslin
GI certificate is considered a prestigious certificate in the world trade industry. The Geographical Indication (GI) certificate acted like a written document that those products who get the certificate are listed as the products of that one specific country. Jamdani had to get the GI certificate in the year 2013. And in the year 2020 Muslin had achieved it. That means the muslin is listed as a product of Bangladesh.
Another good news is the committee has planned to reduce the production cost of muslin cloth. Muslin, which was always beyond the reach of common people may be made for the public this time! Ayub Ali, the director of the project thinks within 2 years it might be available for the market.
If their plan can succeed there is the possibility that I can wear the muslin sari at my wedding ceremony, the same as my grand grandmother. Isn’t it excited?
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