Many centuries ago, muslin, an object of desire and a symbol of luxury, was the first export that introduced Bengal to the world. Over time, this fabric fell by the wayside, unable to compete with machine-made products and because of lack of support to weavers and insufficient market promotion.
Project Muslin is a revival package for this überfine 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 remunerative 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 once engaged in this craft, just 800 remain. Project Muslin aims to revive and promote Bengal muslin through a holistic approach. Among the steps that are being taken include soft and hard interventions like skill development, technology support, design inputs, product diversification, credit linkage, marketing support and encouraging the rural young to take up the craft.
The weavers are given special training and introduced to modern designs so that they can produce high quality, marketable products.
The origins of Bengal muslin are more than a thousand years old. Hand woven from uncommonly delicate hand spun yarn, muslin was produced from a cotton plant that grew exclusively along the banks of a certain stretch of the Brahmaputra river.
Bengal’s muslins were exported to far off Rome under the name ‘textalis-ventalis’ – ‘woven air’ and other fancy names like ‘evening dew’ and ‘morning mist’. About 450 BC, Herodotus testified that in Inde “wild trees bore fleece as their fruit, out of which the Indians made their clothes”. 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. This was so sheer that a small hollow bamboo tube could contain a whole piece of the finest muslin.
The origins of muslin
Archaeologists believe that muslin of the finest weave found from the excavated sites in India was produced during the Indus Valley Civilization about 5000 years ago. But the first documented origin of this finely-woven fabric is from Dhaka (ancient India).
How did muslin get its name?
Some say that the word 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. Muslin is not a Persian word, nor Sanskrit, nor Bengali, so it is very likely that the name Muslin 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.
The marketing of muslin
Aggressive marketing is key to the revival of muslin. The romance of the fabric and its legendary lightness and distinctive motifs have to be promoted both in the urban and rural areas. The approach for both these areas are different and unique. The photograph (left) shows the spanking new showroom opened in Kolkata to promote muslin in an urban setting. Rural outlets are being opened too.