Muslin – One of the glorious golden past of Bengal. The history of the textile industry in Bengal is very old. During the Mughal period, Dhaka, the capital of Bengal, used to make very fine cloth, which was known worldwide as Muslin. Muslin was the most favorite garments among the aristocrats of the society, and the emperors of the Mughal Empire, were particularly fond of this finest clothing. The finest cloth was even exported to Europe after meeting the demand of the subcontinent. One of the features of the finest muslin cloth was that it was so delicate that, according to legend, forty cubits long and two cubits wide muslin, could be easily inserted through a simple ring. Even a 50-meter-long muslin cloth could be packed in a matchbox. However, in the evolution of time, Muslin has been lost from Bengal. The last exhibition of Dhakai Muslin was in London in 1850. Although Muslin is still made in India, however, they are no match to Dhakai Muslin in excellence or quality. After 160 years, at the initiative of the Government of Bangladesh, 6 years of sincere efforts and research came to fruition in 2020. The traditional Dhakai Muslin cloth sari was woven again in Bangladesh. Which has created the possibility of opening new horizons in the textile and fashion industry of Bangladesh.
History of Muslin
Since ancient times, India has been known around the world for its textiles. One such famous textile is muslin, which was mainly produced in Bengal and Orissa. However, the muslin produced in Dhaka was the best in quality.
Although it is not known exactly when muslin production began in India. However, the Greek ambassador and historian Megasthenes, appointed to the court of Chandragupta, emperor of the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BC, described in his writings a type of cloth that bears a striking resemblance to modern muslin. The book Glimpses of World History by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru also mentioned four thousand year old Egyptian mummies wrapped with Indian muslin. In the ancient history of the East and the West, that is, Europe and the Chinese Empire, there was a reference to a kind of cloth that is as transparent and delicate as spider’s web and foam like white clothing. Which made historians believe that the history of Muslin is quite ancient. In the first century AD, Arab merchants bought various kinds of cloth from India, including Muslin, in exchange for ivory, turtle shells, and rhino horns, and brought them to Ethiopia and Egypt through the Red Sea. From there, with the help of Greek merchants, muslin spread to Europe, including the Roman Empire. There is also a history of muslin exports to Thailand and China.
Muslin was initially thought to be named after the city of Mosul in present-day Iraq. However, according to modern historians, the name of Muslin derived from the port of Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh, India, which the Romans called Maisolos. Muslin was one of the main exports of the Port of Maisolos. Muslin produced in Bengal and Orissa would cross the Red Sea from this port to reach Arabia and Europe. The best specimen of Dhakai Muslin was locally known as Malmal. The reason behind the superiority of Dhakai Muslin in terms of quality and finesse is the climate. The cotton used in Dhakai Muslin was different from other types of cotton which only grew in specific places and conditions. In an article published in Prothom Alo, a description of Ralph Fitch, a British merchant, and traveler state that the finest cloth of India could be found in a place near Sreepur in the city of Sonargaon.
The yarn of this cloth came from footy cotton which could be cultivated only in the riverine lands of Bangladesh. This cotton was cultivated on the banks of the Meghna and Shitalakshya rivers and Srirampur, Rajnagar, Kedapur was famous for footy cotton cultivation. Once upon a time a lot of cotton was cultivated in the Kapasia area of Gazipur, which made the area known as Kapasia. On the other hand, muslin fiber was cultivated in Sonargaon. Besides Sonargaon, fiber was also cultivated in Dhaka, Dhamrai, Jangalbari of Kishoreganj, and Bajitpur.
The process of cutting yarn from footy cotton is quite different and complex. Luxury textiles like muslin had to be cut in a very humid place and dawn was the perfect time to cut the yarn. Because if the air humidity would decrease as the day progressed, it would not be possible to cut the yarn. It is even said that the girls used to go to the middle of the river by boat to cut the yarn. The weavers had to be very expert in weaving muslin cloth due to the exquisite and finesse of the yarn. Additionally the loom used for weaving muslin was special as well. Muslin production was complex and required skill. In ancient muslin sarees, 700 to 1200 counts of yarn were used, depending on the variety. The higher the yarn count, the higher the thinness and fineness of the muslin. Muslin cloth is widely used as a symbol of nobility and in various forms of beauty and usage. Notable among these are Malmal Khas, Malbus Khas, Sarkar-i-Ala, Jhuna, Khassa, Shabnam, etc. There are also many other types of muslin. Among all these types, the muslin was sent to the Mughal court with an improved type of muslin called muslin khas, which was mainly worn by kings or emperors and members of the royal family. The women of the Mughal court or harem used to wear Malbul khas clothes. Malbul khas cloth was 10 yards long and 1 yard wide, which weighed 6-7 lbs, and could be easily carried through a ring.
Another type of quality muslin near Malbul Khas was Sarkar-i-Ala, which was made for Nawabs or Subadars. There is also another type of muslin called Jhuna which is named after the Hindi word Jhina which means fine cloth. This type of muslin was not exported but was sent to the Mughal royal court, where the princes and women of the harem wore clothes made of old muslin in summer. Moreover, the dancers used to dance in Jhuna’s dress. Besides, a kind of fine and delicate muslin of dense weaving called Khassa was quite popular at that time. Sonargaon was famous for khasa muslin in the 18th century. There was another type of muslin called Shabnam which was so fine that this cloth could not be seen if it was allowed to dry in the dewy grass in the morning. Also, although Jamdani is now a separate type of sari, in earlier times Jamdani was the type of design on muslin clothing. Nakshi orna, kurta, turban, handkerchief, curtain etc. were also made with jamdani. In addition to the above muslin, there were other types of muslin like ‘Ranga’, ‘Alibali’, ‘Taraddam’, ‘Tanzeb’, ‘Sarbuti’, ‘Charkona’ etc.
Muslin was a symbol of exclusiveness in the society of that time. Muslin was also very popular in Europe. At that time the patrons of muslin were mainly the Nawabs and rulers of Bengal. In the early seventeenth century Dhaka was made capital of Bengal, and as the Dutch, English, and French, realized that trading Dhakai Muslin was profitable, they set up trading posts in Dhaka by the middle of that century. Muslin used to reach Europe through Iranian and Armenian traders. But with the arrival of European companies in Bengal, the export of Dhaka muslin to Europe increased considerably and muslin occupied the European market. It is known that the amount of cotton cloth collected from Dhaka for the emperor, nawab, and export in 1747 was worth 26 lakh 50 thousand BDT at that times currency. Muslin was one of these cotton fabrics.
Although European merchants who came to trade in the subcontinent bought muslin at exorbitant prices and exported it to Europe, Dhaka was forced to trade muslin in exchange for cash, gold and silver as there was no such demand for European goods. But after the fall of Nawab Siraj Ud Daula of Bengal in the battle of Palashi, the ruling class of Bengal fell into political disarray. As a result, their strength and ability gradually diminished. In addition to losing elite buyers, the patronage of muslin also ceased. Besides, the persecution of the East India Company and its employed domestic workers after the Battle of Palashi made the condition of the weavers even more deplorable. Before the British established direct rule in India, the Indian subcontinent was governed by the East India Company. The company introduced discriminatory tariffs to benefit various products produced in Europe, especially in Britain. At that time, the Indian subcontinent was taxed at 70 to 80 percent on ready-made garments, while the import of garments made in Britain was only 2-4 percent. Which made valuable textiles such as muslin more expensive, which led to a gradual decline in interest in muslin. However, the East India Company also committed heinous acts such as cutting off the thumbs of weavers to stop the advancement of muslin and to give the British advantage over low-quality cloth, while forcing the farmers to cultivate indigo. In addition, as the touch of the European Industrial Revolution began to reach the Indian subcontinent, the decline of muslin began to accelerate. After that, although muslin was produced in different parts of India, it was not possible to produce the best type of muslin with the same quality and finesse as Dhaka muslin.
170 years after the last exhibition of muslin in Dhaka in 1850, after six years of efforts to regenerate muslin, a group of researchers has finally succeeded. In quality and meaning, this new muslin is just like the traditional Dhaka muslin cloth, a whole sari melts through the ring. The GI rights of Dhaka Muslin have already been approved. In this age of mechanics, new muslin has been woven using 500 counts of yarn cut by weavers, and cloth has also been woven by handloom weaving. The story behind Muslin’s rebirth is another exciting story.
According to Prothom Alo’s article titled “Rebirth of Dhakai Muslin” published on 31 December 2020, during her visit to the Ministry of Textiles and Jute in October 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed her desire to bring back the tradition of muslin. To that end, she instructed to reinvent the technology by collecting information from the areas known for Muslic yarn. In order to implement this directive of the Prime Minister, the Chairman of the Weaving Board of Bangladesh was convened by the Professor of the Department of Botany, Rajshahi University. A seven-member expert committee was formed including Manzur Hossain, Professor Shah Alimuzzaman of Bangladesh Textile University, Additional Director of Bangladesh Cotton Development Board Md Akhtaruzzaman. Later, for the convenience of research, Professor Bulban Osman of Dhaka University, Professor M Firoz Alam of the Department of Botany, Rajshahi University, Professor of the Department of Agronomy and Agril. Mostafizur Rahman, and Bangladesh Silk Research and Training Institute Rajshahi research officer. Abdul Alim and seven other members were added to the committee. After the formation of the committee, the chief scientist of the project was Professor of Botany, Rajshahi University. Manzoor Hossain. The project director was appointed chief planning officer of the Weaving Board in Bangladesh. Ayub Ali.
After completing the formalities of the project, the researchers found that there were no samples of muslin cloth or cotton in their collection. Their primary task was to identify the cotton plant from which the yarn of the muslin cloth used to be extracted. The main task of his team was to find out the DNA sequence of his yarn and match it with the DNA of the footy cotton plant. But since there is no sample of muslin to confirm which of the many species of footy corpus is the real footy corpus for making a muslin, the main challenge of the project is to procure these two initial items.
Professor Manzoor Hossain said, “Based on the idea that footy corpus survives in the wild in some parts of Bangladesh, it is planned to collect wild varieties of cotton found in different parts of Bangladesh and cultivate them in their own research fields.” To find the tree, it was first drawn by an art student from Rajshahi University, which was later advertised in newspapers and broadcast on BTV. At one stage, the principal of a college in Kapasia area of Gazipur, Tajuddin distributed leaflets and miked at various local schools and colleges in search of footy corps. In March 2017, news of this tree came from Kapasia and Rangamati in Gazipur. Researchers include Kapasia as well as Baghaichhari, Sajek, and Langdu in Rangamati; He collected a total of 38 samples from Bagerhat, Lalmonirhat, and Kurigram. This variety of potential footy corpus is cultivated in the field of Botany of Rajshahi University and in the field of IBSC after finding a similarity of a sketch with a species of Kapasia tree.
Meanwhile, an advertisement was published in the newspaper on 11 December 2016 to procure muslin cloth from local sources. After about 2000 phone calls, samples of 8 pieces of cloth were collected from different parts of the country, including a 300-year-old sari. But after the test, it is known that they are actually old silk cloth.
As the team was unable to collect any sample from the country, they asked the National Museum authorities for a 4X4 inch piece of Dhakai muslin cloth. Which, the museum authorities denied even after the team had permission from the ministry. After spending about eight months in the hopes of getting samples from the National Museum, at one point they went to the Indian National Museum of Kolkata to collect muslin samples. In order to recreate the superior quality of Dhakai muslin, the experts of the museum found varieties in the vicinity of Dhaka and suggested carrying out activities in that area by controlling the weather with that cotton. In doing so, the research team became somewhat frustrated and the Prime Minister advised them to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Later, in July 2017, they received samples of muslin cloth and important information from the museum. Until then, however, they were allowed to enter the National Museum, but only one museum turban was made of Dhakai muslin. The DNA sequence of a muslin cloth collected from London was eventually matched with a variety of Kapasia. Then began the work of making muslin yarn.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, when 700 to 1,200 counts of yarn were used for weaving muslin cloth, 500 counts of muslin was also produced. In the case of yarn count, the weight of one kilometer is divided by the length of the yarn. The process of making 500 counts of yarn from cotton was quite complicated. Because this yarn will not be in modern machinery, it will have to be cut in a spinning wheel. For which the search for weavers who cut the yarn on the spinning wheel began. In this context, weavers who cut thick yarn on a spinning wheel were found in Chandina, Cumilla. Six yarn cutters were trained in a nearly two-year effort through various competitions and screening selections. In addition, the lost method of refining yarn had to be rediscovered. They are now working as trainers. In addition to the craftsmen, new spinning wheels have to be designed to cut so many counts of yarn. In addition, the matter of spinning is actually possible with the magic of three fingers and women. However, they had to undergo finger treatment before they were ready to spin, and they were not allowed to do any other cutting work so as not to scratch the fingers in any way. After getting the desired count of yarn, this time the researchers had to find the weaver. However, since Jamdani sari was produced in the country with 150 counts of yarn, they were a little optimistic and at one point two weavers got the desired weavers in Narayanganj.
At the beginning of the weaving process, the research team had to solve various issues at every step. As the muslin yarn became thinner, it would tear at every step of the weaving process. As a result, every step has to be rediscovered and the design of conventional hand-operated looms has to be changed. Weather is also a big factor in muslin fabrics. Since weaving is not possible in hot or cold weather, scientists have to think about temperature control. In addition to all these, the two weavers also had to give a lot of technical training step by step in weaving muslin cloth. Through all these trials and errors, the two weavers were able to weave a sari exactly after seeing the design of the sari woven in 1710. Initially, it cost them Tk 3 lakh 60 thousand to weave the sari. Project officials said the total cost of the project was estimated at Tk 14 crore 10 lakh. Despite going through a lot of trials and errors in six years, the remaining 70 percent of the allocation has been returned to the government sector. Researchers have made a total of six sarees and one saree has been given as a gift to the Prime Minister.
The project researchers expect that these costs will gradually decrease in the future through technical training and various other process optimizations. Besides, project director Ayub Ali hopes that it may be possible to bring this sari to the public market in the next two years. Muslin’s rebirth is good news for Bangladesh’s textile, garments, and fashion industries. If it is possible to reduce the cost of production of muslin cloth and produce it commercially on a massive scale, then the cloth produced in Bangladesh will regain its 200-year-old tradition around the world, as well as play an important role in the country’s GDP and overall progress.