• Brian O'Callaghan

The Romance of Bengali Muslin

Updated: Jan 18, 2019

The story of Bengali muslin wafts and weaves through 1000 years of history. True Muslin is a cotton fabric of supreme lightness and refinement. Legend has it that true Bengali Muslin was a cloth so fine, when placed on the grass in the morning dew, it would appear translucent. Moghul Emperors, International traders, Marco Polo and even Egyptian mummies have their part in the story of muslin. Historically, it is believed Muslin was first encountered by crusaders in Mosul. This cotton plant was cultivated along the banks of the Brahmaputra River, Bangladesh. Vast revenue for those involved in its trade was generated in the 16th and 17th century, driven by the demands of Royalty and of international consumers. Bangladesh (formerly Bengal) is currently being rocked by protest against dangerous roads and the arrest and silencing of citizens (Including noted Bangladeshi photographer Shadidul Alam) is overlocking the threads of unrest. The regions complex textile story is still living with the stains of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, where thousands of garment workers were needlessly killed revealed a wasteful industry with poor working conditions and a legacy of pollution. The cotton ‘muslin’ industry in Bangladesh was deliberately eroded by British Colonialism and replaced with machine-made fabrics in the 18th century. History has all but claimed the cotton plant, and the unique knowledge of the spinners and weavers. Things may be about to change. Although the muslin industry went into decline in the late 19th century, many are calling for a revival of Muslin cotton. Drik is a creative agency that 'believes in the power of culture and promotes cultural diversity with an emphasis on the visual medium'. Drik was founded by Shadidul Alam and has strived to tell the real story of Bengal muslin with an exhibition, documentary, and book. Tasdiqur Rahman, deputy director of the Cotton Development Board advises that in order to revive muslin cotton, the industry must (a) search germplasm around the world; (b) collect germplasms from gene bank; (c) research programmes should be carried out; (d) communication nationality and internationally; (e) awareness development; (f) skilled human resources; and (g) support from government and donor agencies.

We can see some examples of Muslin today in Western museums. Colonisers wanted to destroy the cotton domestic exporting from Bengal and they persecuted weavers (often removing thumbs) to boost their own textile trade. This is focused and labor-intensive work, something many people are reluctant to engage in today. Historically if a family was small, they would often join with another family in the manufacture of cloth.

Recently, the production of jamdani (hand loom) has witnessed a revival in Bangladesh and has been declared as an Intagiable Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Jamdani weaving tradition is of Bengali origin. It is one of the most time and labor-intensive forms of handloom weaving. It is undoubtedly one of the varieties of finest muslin. It has been spoken of as the most artistic textile of the Bangladeshi weaver. Traditionally woven around Dhaka and created on the loom brocade, jamdani is fabulously rich in motifs. The world’s finest cotton cloth from G arboreum fibre had been traditionally produced in the region for more than 5,000 years. Indian cotton fabric, Calico and Dhaka muslin cotton had been the main exports to Britain for about 100 years before the British enforced a ban in the 1721 AD act, prohibiting calicoes and cotton import from India because of the collapse of their domestic wool industry. The most refined sort of muslin was made of phuti cotton, which was cultivated around the River Brahmaputra. Other kinds of cotton such as bairait and deshi were less refined and were cultivated in different parts of Dhaka.American cotton hybrid systems currently dominate more than 95% of the cotton in Bangladesh and are not sustainable. Increased cost, labor shortage and the use of chemicals are pushing the cultivation of cotton to an unsustainable level. Could the future of American cotton lie in muslin?

Domesticated prehistorically and cultivated 7,000 years ago, there are four types of cotton in the world. Among them, Gossypium arboreum and Gossypium herbacium were cultivated in the Indian subcontinent millions of years ago and were commonly referred to as deshi cotton species. Gossypium arboreum is under commercial cultivation only in the Indian subcontinent. It is interesting to know that the British introduced American cotton species Gossipium hirsutum in 1790 and tried hard for 150 years to replace the deshi cotton with the American cotton. They did not succeed. In 1947, when the British left India, at least 97.0 percent of the cotton used was deshi. Now 97 percent of subcontinent areas are under American cotton cultivation and 3 percent under deshi cotton cultivation. Egyptian cotton has gained a reputation in the world with strong fibre making fabrics more solid and more resistant to stress. Its ability to absorb liquids gives Egyptian cotton fabrics deeper, brighter colors. Cotton absorbs approximately 25 times its weight in water.

Organic cotton means that the fibers were grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides or genetic modification. Cotton can be organic however it rarely is. When I was searching for fabric for my slow fashion brand Kintsugi Atelier I found it a challenge to purchase affordable organic fabric. I want to use refined fabrics at a fair price that don't involve the exploitation of someone along the production journey. All too often retailers feign ignorance in the fast fashion game. It is simply not enough to claim you have outsourced your goods to a company and you know nothing about the exploitation of workers and the poor working conditions. Consumers are now more engaged in where their clothes come from. Corporate responsibility must be enforced. Vote with your cash and think carefully about the source of your clothes. Some argue that Fast Fashion provides much-needed jobs in poor countries and without these lifelines, many would face abject poverty. Governments need to do more to stop importing at risk products produced by slaves. It is a complicated chain of supply but it needs to perform ethically and sustainably. There is a change happening across the fashion industry. Major labels are saying no to furs such as Gucci and Versace. Innovation is happening with companies such as CCMS, Sdress, and BRIA leading innovation. The story of Bengali muslin is a story of fashion. We need to keep developing new sustainable materials for use in fashion, perhaps Bengali muslin can weave its way out of the past and takes its place in a Fashion future. Sources:

Muslin, Our story, Paperback, 2016 by Saiful Islam (Author), Rahnuma Ahmed (Editor),Khademul Islam (Editor), Drik (Illustrator)http://www.biswabangla.in/pro-spc-club-muslin/2015/7/6/club-muslinhttp://drik.net Thank you to Drik for the use of the images. Collage

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2019 Brian O'Callaghan