Dhaka has always been known worldwide for the most exquisite hand-woven fabrics ever: the muslin. Going back about 200 years in history, ancient Bengal pursued trades around the globe, focusing on the famed lucrative muslin. Regardless of being one of the largest garments producers, the Bangladeshi Government is determined in reinstating the lost glory of Dhaka, by reinventing the highly coveted muslin. Our pride of the muslin is in oblivion, considering the fabric has now become a reminiscence of the past. With progress in technology, how difficult is it to resurrect the muslin?
Muslin has always been fabric of pride for Bangladesh; modern muslin is machine-milled transparent cloned fabric. But the muslin we are talking about is a heritage, hand-woven almost 200 years back. Back then, muslin was a cotton fabric of plain weave well known for its soft, light texture and transparency of the material. The muslin of the 17th – 18th century was produced from a locally grown, rare cotton plant called ‘Phuti Kapas’. This particular variety was grown only along the stretch of the Meghna /Brahmaputra River. The plant bore yellow flowers twice a year and the weaver extracted the cotton fibers from within. The soil and temperature conditions were conducive to Phuti Kapas and it grew in no other place. Hence, its value increased as the surrounding area became the only centres of Muslin creation.
Muslin cotton yarns were handspun and had 16 elaborate processes, the weavers worked diligently to achieve the desired end product. It was essentially a family business and the
role of family members was demarcated, young women were entrusted with spinning, the threads were delicate and needed gentle hands to spin them and men were engaged in the weaving process. Elderly were not usually involved as the fine threads were rarely visible to them. After the cotton balls were collected, they were cleaned with locally made tools out of the spine-like teeth on the jawbone of the catfish, found in rivers of the region. The spinning of the fibre required a high level of humidity to stretch them, and the young women who were adept in this process ventured out in the early morning and late afternoon to extract these. It is said that only the most dexterous hand could weave 300ft or 91m fabrics, with such great precision and lightness, that it could pass through a ring.
The benchmark of the fabric, created by our ancient weavers, remains an unachievable feat in modern times. Muslin fabric was treasured for its premium quality in many parts of the globe before British rule. This high-end luxury product was fundamentally for the elite and aristocrats, beyond the reach of common people. One yard of muslin, less than a meter would cost 50 to 400 pounds depending on the quality, and there were said to be fifteen different varieties. Josephine Bonaparte first wife of Napoleon, and Jane Austen made muslin a fashion statement with the regal fabric in Victorian England. Unfortunately, the colonial rulers maneuvered with the technique of muslin creation, they commercialized it and thereby produced cheaper ones. One kilogram of Phuti Karpas cotton yielded only 8 grams of soft delicate muslin but used coarser and mixed yarn to produce the cloth and the delicate processing by loom had given way to the machine. The weaver failed to compete with the cheaper machine-made muslin. The machine failed to match the technical excellence of the 2425 thread count of the weavers’ hand-spun yarn. Both the weavers and the quality of the muslin suffered. Dhaka’s pride, muslin was forced into darkness. Phuti Kapas also became extinct because of a couple natural disasters and the muslin vanished into the thin air. Added to this, the master weavers who pioneered the craft have now passed on. The methodology was passed down to progeny by way of internship within the family which involved the delicate know-how about the weather which played a significant role in making the yarn.
Though the whole process of muslin weaving is shrouded in obscurity, during a visit to the Textile and Jute Ministry in 2014, Prime Minister Sk. Hasina had instructed on reviving muslin and has also allocated a Tk.13 core fund to reinstate the lost glory. The government initiative is a great boost for researchers who are arduously working on finding the extinct Phuti Kapas which were only available in a small stretch around Meghna River, finding a genetic match would be a priceless accomplishment. Much has been done since the Hon’able Prime Minister has instructed to revive the industry. The government of Bangladesh and the private sector are in pursuit of rejuvenating the original Dhaka Muslin. In 2016, Drik’s Bengal Muslin team and Aarong together organized month-long muslin festival; held at the National Museum. Bangladesh National Museum has only two muslin clothing and researchers have reached out to the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK, which has a collection of over 300 muslin clothing.
At Rajshahi University, field of researchers have been deployed to restore and reinvent the Phuti Kapas. They foresee hope as they are close to producing a match of Phuti Kapas, yet to equal the splendor of original muslin,
Bangladesh has shown an indomitable spirit to explore the unknown and reclaim this heritage. With the strong assurance of the Government, hopefully we will be able to restore the magnificence of the original muslin. This is an aspiration amongst researchers, academics, and fashion houses alike, and gives us hope to see the lost pride of muslin reinstated. Bangladesh has secured its talent in textiles through its global accreditation of the Jamdani, it is now only a matter of time before we place muslin in its former pedestal.
The Author Shehnaz Rokeb by profession educationist, writes on national heritage.