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Could Dhaka Muslin be coming back?

Scandalous Fashion: The Naked Appeal of Dhaka Muslin

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Dhaka Muslin is a precious fabric that gained popularity around 200 years ago, but its roots go back much further. In the late 18 th century, Dhaka muslin became a new fashion and gained both admiration and notoriety throughout Europe. With its transparent appearance and its use in dresses and blouses, giving a near-naked appearance, the fabric became scandalous.  

Marco Polo was the first to describe muslin in his book  The Travels  in 1298 AD, where he wrote that it originated in Mosul, Iraq.  During the 17th and 18th centuries, Bengal (now Bangladesh) emerged as the foremost muslin exporter in the world, with Dhaka as capital of the worldwide muslin trade.  It became highly popular in 18th-century France and eventually spread across much of the Western world.

The Story of Dhaka Muslin

Dhaka Muslin was made through a 16-step process, using rare cotton that was found only in the holy riverbanks of Meghna. Hence, this cloth was considered as one of the greatest treasures to possess in that age.

18th Century Dhaka Muslin (Faizul Latif Chowdhury /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Bengal (now Bangladesh) has a centuries-long history of manufacturing textiles. As per the  Periplus of the Erythraean Sea  (Scoff, 1912), the  Greek and Arab merchants used to trade Muslin between Red Sea Port, Aduli and India. The muslin was exchanged for rhinoceros horns, tortoise shells and ivory. Before European merchants came to  India, Muslin was traded between Barygaza, the ancient Indian port in Gujarat, and the different subcontinents of India. 

Muslin was highly valued by the  Romans, and they used gold coins to buy the material from South India and Deccan. The Romans introduced muslin to Europe, where it was soon in high demand. 

There were many different types of Dhaka Muslins that were popular and preferable by the people of that age. But, some of the finest works were honored and given special names by some poets. One such name of the finest Dhaka Muslin was  baft-hawa. It means “woven air”!

The high-end muslins were considered soft and light as the wind. There were instances recorded by travelers, who said that this fluid fabric could be pulled through the center of a ring. And, one person wrote that a Dhaka Muslin of 60ft (18m) in length could fit into a pocket box. This gives an idea of how delicate the fabric is.

The Use of Dhaka Muslin

Traditionally, Dhaka Muslin was preferred to make jamas and saris. It was also used for making tunic-like garments for men. In the UK, it resulted in a change in the style of aristocracy. The horizontal waistlines that were difficult to fit into the doorways were out, and chemise gowns were brought in instead. These attires appeared similar to underwear.

Traditional Bangladesh weaving methods (Jeremy BN /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In one of the satirical prints made by Isaac Cruikshank, a woman wearing a long and bright-colored Dhaka Muslin dress is completely exposed through the transparent fabric. Even with this naked appeal, Dhaka Muslin was a hit! It was considered as one of the most expensive fabrics of that era.

Dhaka Muslin had big names as its fans, that includes the name of French Empress Josephine  Bonaparte, French Queen Marie Antoinette, and Jane Austin. But, just as the cloth gained popularity as Europe entered its period of enlightenment, it completely vanished from existence.

Dhaka Muslin: A Lost Art 

Dhaka Muslin disappeared in the early 20th century. Not just Europe, but it vanished from all around the globe. The only surviving samples are stored safely in the museums and private collections. The people of the 20th century were not aware of the techniques to make it. Moreover, the cotton that was primarily used for making Dhaka Muslin named Gossypium Arboreum, also locally known as Phuti Karpas, was extinct in its original form.

Gossypium Arboreum, or Ceylon Cotton ( I, KENPEI  / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Muslin production was declining so fast because of attempts by the British Colonial Authorities to suppress the entire weaving culture. With the onset of war, poverty, famine, and earthquakes infiltrated the region. Most of the weavers started to use low-quality fabrics, other weavers became farmers. This is how Dhaka Muslin was nearly eradicated from existence. 

Rediscovery for the Modern Age

Researchers in Bangladesh and  United Kingdom  are putting their efforts into reviving this fabric. Zaria Gorvett, a reporter for the BBC Future, has reported on a project named Drik PL, launched by a photography agency in the year 2014. This project collaborates with botanists and artisans to replicate the weaving techniques learned and implemented years ago.

Saiful Islan, the former CEO of Drik and Head of the Bengal Muslin project, talked to Rafi Hossain, who works in Daily Star, Bangladeshi Newspaper. Saiful says that he talked to many craftsmen and researchers and has realized that there is not much evidence or research done over Dhaka Muslin.

Saiful also says that this fabric is an important part of their history and culture, and its knowledge is now at the risk of being lost forever. Therefore, precise and in-depth research is essential to find what is lost and revive the culture and history.

Muslin Woman by Francesco Renaldi (Francesco Renaldi /  Public Domain )

The head botanist of Rajshahi University, Monzur Hossain, is also currently working on developing and reviving Dhaka Muslin. This report was published by Abul Kalam Muhammad Azad, who reports for Daily Prothom Alo, a Dhaka-based Newspaper. This group is conducting research upon diverse cotton plants and several weaving techniques. So far, they have produced six sarees with the fabric developed from their efforts.

Bangladesh’s Textiles and Jute Minister, Golam Dastagir Gazi, a partner in Hossain Project, tells Bulbul Habib or Business Standard that they have been successful in reviving the Dhaka Muslin fabric. They have then presented the cloth to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, after which it was proposed for mass production.

The Naked Truth

The combined efforts of researchers from different institutes and countries will eventually put more light onto this fabric in the coming ages. This enigmatic fabric was of high popularity centuries ago. The researchers want to give it that appeal in the present era as well. So far, they have achieved a good amount of success while walking on this path! Who knows, maybe Dhaka Muslin will become as popular in the future as it was in the past.

Top Image: Could Dhaka Muslin be coming back? Source:  Alfa27 / Adobe Stock

By Bipin Dimri

References

The ancient fabric that no one knows how to make. Available at:  https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210316-the-legendary-fabric-that-no-one-knows-how-to-make

Our Story of Dhaka Muslin. Available at:  https://www.aramcoworld.com/Articles/May-2016/Our-Story-of-Dhaka-Muslin  

How Modern Researchers Are Trying to Recreate a Long-Lost Fabric. Available at:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/researchers-work-revive-beloved-dhaka-muslin-fabric-180977339/  

DHAKA MUSLIN: THE LOST ANCIENT FABRIC BACK FROM THE DEAD. Available at:  https://www.bbntimes.com/environment/dhaka-muslin-the-lost-ancient-fabric-that-had-a-risky-transparency  

Dhaka Muslin: The Lost Ancient Fabric That No One Knows How To Make Anymore. Available at:  https://edtimes.in/dhaka-muslin-the-lost-ancient-fabric-that-no-one-knows-how-to-make-anymore/

Dhaka Muslin: back from the dead? Available at:  http://newsnetone.com/2016/06/dhaka-muslin-did-it-really-exist/  

Muslin-Banglapedia, available at:  http://en.banglapedia.org/index.php/Muslin#:~:text=Muslin%20is%20not%20a%20Persian,same%20name%20to%20Dhaka%20fabrics

Comments

Commonly called tree cotton, Gossypium arboreum is a species of cotton native to India, Pakistan, and other tropical to subtropical regions. Gossypium arboreum survives as a species, while the variety neglecta, commonly known as phuti karpas, is extinct. 

Researchers managed to find a collection of dried leaves collected from the extinct phuti karpas tree cotton variety in the United Kingdom at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. DNA sequencing from those leaves eventually led to a shrub in Bangladesh that closely matched. 

Craftspeople in villages around Dhaka followed a laborious, 16-step process to prepare phuti karpas fiber. More than 50 tools were used by specialists to make the muslin weaver’s shana, an ultrafine-toothed reed comb. On a loom, shanas keep separation among spiderweb-thin warp threads.

Curiously, the fine razor-sharp toothed upper jaw of a boalee catfish was used for combing the fiber clean before ginning and spinning. Soaked in the Meghna River’s waters, it shrank instead of swelling and dissolving. Alternate sections of the fiber flattened and became stronger so that even the ultra-thin thread spun from it could withstand the stress when wound on the loom.  

Some revivalists are producing 500 count muslin in small quantities while attempting to revive Dhaka muslin. They have their work cut out for them. Historically Dhaka muslin had thread counts in the range of 800-1200. It likely took generations to select the traits needed and after to perfect the processes of weaving the final product. 

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