Muslin or muslin fabric is something we Bengalis feel tied closely with our hearts. Previously called
“Malmal”, this carries a bundle of stories from our past enriched with traditions. This cloth, weighting from delicate sheers to coarse sheeting, holds a golden history as well as a heartbreaking story of getting dissolved within the history with time.
HISTORY OF MUSLIN
Muslin started its journey more than about 400 years ago. Muslin manufactured from ancient Bengal (Bangladesh as well as the Western Bengal of India) got spread and exported at a large scale to China,
America, Netherlands, Germany, Egypt, Italy, the markets of several countries of Europe and so on. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea describes that the Arab and Greek merchants used to trade between India and the Red Sea port of Aduli (in present-day Eritrea), Egypt and Ethiopia in the second century CE.
At that time, muslin would be exchanged for ivory, tortoiseshell, and rhinoceros-horn.
The Romans prized muslin highly, using bullion and gold coins to buy the material from Deccan and South India. They introduced muslin into Europe, and eventually, it became very popular. The lightweight and sheerness of the cloth have been mentioned in various ancient writings. Roman wives simply fell in love with muslin cloths. Pliny the Elder, a writer from ancient Rome, even “complained” that the roman women kept showing off the lines and curves of their bodies anyway while clad in the thin coverage of muslin cloths.
Researchers like Wood and others note, the muslin from the then Dacca earned special attention in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian societies. According to Willford, a Babylonian shopping list especially mentioned the muslin from Dacca. As for the ancient Egyptians, muslin was used as a luxury. It is even said that the Egyptian royals, mummified within the ending period of the Royal families, around 1462 BC was found covered with muslin and colored in indigo from Bengal.
Another research said, in the second century BC, the Dhakai muslin used to be sold in Greece. There, it would be used for clothing their Goddesses. There are historical documents which show that Greek young men became a topic of criticism by the philosophers and humor writers because of wearing a special kind of muslin called “Jhuna Malmal”. Also, an ancient Tibetan book called Kulbha describes a priestess who was called names and criticized highly because of wearing the Jhuna Malama.
There are several other stories about the muslin. One story describes that Zeb-un-Nissa, daughter of emperor Aurangzeb, got highly chided by her father for coming to the courtroom “almost naked” even after being clad with seven layers of muslin. Another story about Mal-Mal Khash, another type of muslin, tells about a weaver who wove a thin piece of muslin for Nawab Alivardi Khan. It was so thin that after washing and letting it dry on the grass, it was not identifiable and eventually fed to a cow with the grass. Alivardi Khan later sent away the weaver away from the city.
Several foreign explorers who came to visit Bengal got utterly impressed with the weaving style and brilliancy that lay with the structure of muslin. In the 9th century AC, Arab explorer, and geographer Sulayman al-Tajir described in his journal “Silsilat al-Tawarikh” that in a kingdom (probably current Bangladesh) a the very thin fabric could be found. This fabric was of such fine quality that a 160-inch-long and 8-inch-wide the piece could easily be slipped through a finger-ring. In the middle of the 4th century, famous explorer Ibn Battuta visited Sonargaon and got amused by seeing the muslin being made. He noted that it might be impossible to find any better fabric close to this one in the whole world. A Chinese explorer, Ma Huan, mentioned about five or six varieties of fine cloths after visiting Bengal in the early fifteenth century; he mentioned that the muslin from Bengal was highly-priced in China at that time. In the 16th century,
Portuguese voyager Duarte Barbosa and during the 18th century, Dutch voyager Stavorinus noticed and praised the weaving tactics and qualities of muslin being produced in several areas of Bangladesh.
Beside these mentions, the sheer, eye-catching weaving of muslin surprised the government-employed historian of the British Company, Robert Orme. While his stay in Bangladesh during 1750, he was able to observe the making of muslin and the traditions and values it carried. He wrote, “It is quite puzzling for me, how on earth the people here make such fine clothing.” He also noted that even though the local weavers lacked machinery advancement, they possessed high sensitivity and flex; even the women’s cooking hands here were said to be more beautiful softer than those of any European beauty.
A report made by East India Company in 1789 notes- the weavers of Bengal excelled in making high-quality fine clothing with some simple self-invented tools rather than using any machine. About 75% of earnings of East India Company came from exporting muslin around the world.
ORIGIN OF THE WORD “MUSLIN”
It is not fully cleared of how the word “Muslin” came up. According to Wikipedia, it has been described in Hobson-Jobson, written by Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell, that the word came from ‘Mosul’.
Mosul is a famous business point of Iraq, where European traders are said to have first encountered the cloth, however assuming the cloth to be originally from Bengal. In Mosul too, a similar fabric was said to be produced but not as good as the muslin. The British connected the fineness of the cloth with the word “Mosul” and named it “Muslin”. In the history of Bengal, however, muslin is directly noted as a fine clothing produced in Dhaka and a few surrounding areas.
HOW IS MUSLIN PRODUCED
Muslin used to be made from the cotton out of a special kind, locally named “Phuti Karpas”. The scientific name of the plant is Gossypium Arboreum Var Neglecta. The cotton used for muslin was unique in structure and different from other types of cotton. This would grow only in a few places of Bangladesh, mostly on the banks of the rivers Meghna and Shitalakshya. The surrounding was an important factor for both producing the cotton and weaving the muslin. A cool, serene environment is better for weaving muslin. It is said that ladies used to spin the cotton for muslin at the dawn of the day, often sitting in boats in the river if needed. This would not be possible to continue once the sun was up.
In ancient works of muslin, a muslin saree would be weaved with 700 to 800 thread counts. Thus, the sarees would be fine and sheer.
TYPES OF MUSLIN
Different types of muslin spread out their name and fame as a sign of luxury, differing in appearance and usage. Such as-
Mal -bush Khash: This fine muslin was the designated cloth for the Emperor and his family and was specially made for their use. The name means “Real Fabric”. By the end of the 18th century, a similar yet better quality muslin would be prepared. This fabric was called “Mal-mal Khash”. These fabrics would have a length of 10gauge, the width of 1gauge and weigh around 75 to 88 grams approximately. These would easily slip through finger rings. These were the muslins mostly exported
Jhuna: Jhuna was another type of muslin that was gauze-like and highly preferred by dancers. According to James Taylor, the word Jhuna comes from the Hindi word “Jhina” which means “thin.” With a low thread number (thread count refers to the number of horizontal and vertical threads per square inch), it was highly transparent, rather gauze-like. Each piece would be about 20gauge long, 1gauge wide and weigh only 250 grams. These were banned from exporting and would be sent to Mughal court. The princes and harem members would use this in summer. Also, jhuna was highly preferred by dancers to wear while performing.
Abrawan: The meaning of Abrawan comes from two Farsi words meaning “water” and “flow.” This type of muslin was extremely delicate and thin and was thus compared to that of the flowing water. It would have measurements and weight close to “Jhuna”, length of 20gauge, the width of 1gauge and weigh only 250 grams.
Khassa: Khassa is a Farsi word that means very fine and thin muslin. The cloth was plain and famous for its thick weave. Around the 17th century, Sonargaon was famous for making Khassa muslin. Besides that, during 18th and 19th century, “Jangalbari” was also famous for khassa, which was then called “Jangal (jungle) khassa”. The British, would call it “Kusha”.
Shubnam: Shubnam which means ‘ morning dew’ was such a fine muslin that if the cloth was laid on the grass to be dried, one could hardly differentiate between it and the dew. With a similar measurement to Khassa, Shabnam weighted around 250 to 275 grams. The cloth would almost look like the morning fog.
Nyansookh: This is a muslin named originally from Bengali words. It is said that this particular type of muslin brought “pleasure to the eye.” The famous book, Ain-e-Akbare mentions the use of Nyansookh.
The cloth was famous for being a very thin fabric and was used as a neckerchief.
Buddun-Khash: Buddun means “body” while khash means “special.” The meaning kind of explains itself.
This type of muslin was used for making clothes. It was of a very fine cloth even though it was not as closely textured. A piece of this would be about 24gauge long, 1.5 gauge wide and weigh around 375 grams.
Surbund: The word Surbund comes from Farsi words ‘sur’ and ‘bund’ meaning “head” and “tie.” The 'surbund' was mainly used for head attire, i.e. turbans by the high-class employees. The Company would export this muslin back to the home country. They were mostly used by the English as scarves.
Dooria: Dooria, derived from the word Dorakata was a type of striped muslin. It was done by twisting two or more threads on the loop and using three parts cotton and two parts silk. Dooria was used to make clothes for both men and women, but mostly for making kids’ dresses.
Jamdani: Muslin that had woven motifs was always commonly known as Jamdani. ‘ Jam’ meant flowers and ‘dani’ meant a container thus forming a flower vase of sorts. During 1700, Sherwanis made with designed jamdani were a part of traditions. Besides this, jamdani would be used for the traditional dress of Nepal, “Ranga”. Different types of scarves, kurta, turbans, handkerchief, curtains would also be made using Jamdani. Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine had her bedroom decorated with jamdani curtains. Jamdani had many great varieties and was always in demand which made it extremely expensive.
Today, jamdani is more of clothing woven from Karpas. As the surviving successor of muslin, jamdani saree holds a special place amongst Bengali women. Before, a muslin with the design would be called jamdani; while now, we take jamdani as a different kind in sarees.
Besides these types, there were several other types of muslin in Bengal. They include Rongo, Aleballee, Toraddam, Tanzeb, Sarbuti, Charkona and so on. Sadly, like every other masterpiece, there have been attempts to copy muslin as well, which makes it harder to identify an actual muslin. However, the history of the muslin, lost about 200 years ago, still makes our heart flutter. This simple piece of clothing carries the golden times along with the traditions of ancient Bengal.