Muslin

Muslin, one of the costliest fabrics in the world, was developed over a challenge - a challenge between a king and a poor artisan.

Several hundred of years ago, a poor old man decided to visit the king with a goal to procure work at his court. Stopped at the gate by the guards, the poor man came up with a sudden trick. He told the guards, that he had something immensely valuable to show the king. Intrigued, the guards took him to the darbar or king’s court.  Unfortunately he had not with him anything that was either expensive or of value. As a punishment the king ordered his men to banish the artisan. Understanding that he was in grave trouble, the poor fellow promised to return to the king’s court after 30 days with an expensive gift, a gift that he challenged the king has possibly never seen.

For 30 days nothing was heard from him. On the 30th day, a haggard old man entered the court. It was the same old artisan who had promised to bring his king an expensive gift. He brought out from his bag a glittering cloth, so soft, light and smooth that it could be pulled easily through the loop of a finger ring. This was indeed a cloth that the king had never seen or heard of in his life. Thus was born the Muslin, an object of desire and a symbol of luxury for Kings and Nawabs of ancient India.

There are many such stories that surround the actual origin of Muslin which remains to be  a much debatable topic for historians. Some historians believe that muslin of the finest weave was found from the excavated sites as the Indus Valley Civilization some 5000 years ago. However, the most acceptable one is that along the reach delta line of river Brahmaputra, grew some fine quality cotton plant.  Craftsmen spun delicate yarns from these plants which they called muslin.

There are also some controversies on the origin of the word Muslin. Some say it was derived from Mosul, an old trade centre in Iraq, while others think that muslin was connected with Musulipattam, sometime headquarters of European trading companies in southern India. Because muslin is not a Persian word, nor Sanskrit, nor Bengali, it is very likely that the name was given by the Europeans to cotton cloth imported by them from Mosul, and when they saw the fine cotton goods of Dhaka, they gave the same name to those fabrics.

History records proofs of Bengal’s muslins being exported to far off Rome under the name ‘textalis-ventalis’ – ‘woven air’ and other fancy names like ‘evening dew’ and ‘morning mist’. The best quality muslins had such fineness that it was a very highly valued item which only the very rich could afford. Involving highly intricate processes of spinning, weaving, darning and washing, the celebrated muslins of Bengal attained the status of an art. A standard piece of fine Bengal muslin measured 60 feet by 3 feet. The textile was so fine that a small hollow bamboo tube could contain a whole piece of the finest muslin.

Unable to compete with machine-made products and because of lack of support to weavers and insufficient market promotion, the muslin industry hit rock bottom sometime in the 19th century. However, this ancient and near extinct trade has now been revived under the aegis of Biswa Bangla which is committed to promote it worldwide again.

Project Muslin is a revival package for this uberfine cotton-thread by the Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and Textiles, Government of West Bengal. Its primary objective is to revive the muslin industry and ensure that the artisans get proper returns and appreciation for their unique skills.

West Bengal produces nearly 55% of the muslin made in India. But out of the thousands of muslin weavers that were engaged in this craft, just 780 remain. Project Muslin aims to revive and promote Bengal muslin through a holistic approach like skill development, technology support, design inputs, product diversification, credit linkage, marketing support and encouraging the rural young to take up the craft.