Muslin and The Lost Traditions of Bangladesh

1 – Welcome to #ThreadTalk, muslin edition. Muslin has been all over my feed, so let me cut to the chase:

The finest fabric in human history was perfected by the Bengali people but tragically lost in the wake of imperialism & economic ruin at the hands of the English.

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18th - early 19th century muslin gown, made in India. A woman's gown. (c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 Fine muslin ground with decoration in applied tinsel, spangles and foil. The peshwaz was made for a small wearer. The bodice portion is heavily embellished with wide bands of decoration around the sleeves, neck, hem, front-opening, and down the middle of the ground panels. The bands are made of silver-gilt, bordered by strips of green foil, with rows of blossoms in red foil and sequins. The same style of bands decorate the edges and hems of the skirt panels, and the wrists of the sleeves. The main ground of the sleeves and skirt is embellished with a motif of silver-gilt strip couched into four-pteal blossoms, regularly divided by serrated rows of silver-gilt foil. A deep striped trim lines the inside bottom hem of the skirt.

2 – Muslin was once called "The vapor of dawn" by a Chinese trader named Yuan Chwang. Other names were "woven wind" & "wonder gossamer" – yet it's now synomymous with Regency period dramas.

There's no way around this: it is not a happy story. But it's one people need to hear.

Closeup of muslin, (c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London - ca. 1855 (made), made in Chennai.

Red muslin textile, possibly a scarf, with diagonal bands of floral designs in flattened gold wire, gold-wrapped thread and green spangles.

3 – In many ways, this is a companion thread to my original #chintz talk. Chintz and muslin are both made from cotton & both arose to fame b/c of the art, vision, & craft of Indian weavers.

Muslin is a basic plain weave, that means it's just a warp and a weft. But there's more.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London - This robe is said to have belonged to Tipu Sultan of Mysore (d.1799), although there is only anecdotal evidence for this. The late Mughal style of the robe and its decoration do tally with an 18th-century date.

4 – Muslin is a basic plain weave, BUT the fabric is so thin it's almost transparent, breathes easily & is soft with a lustre finish.

At its peak, Bengali muslin was rumored to have 2000+ thread-count BY HAND. The best muslins came from cotton grown along the Brahmaputra river.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London - 1855. Chennai. Length of muslin, embroidered wth flattened gold wire and gold and green spangles. With vertical bands of floral design.

5 – Before we go too far down this thread: in the US "muslin" is not the same fabric we're talking about. That's a rough, cheap material.

What I mean by muslin is the fabric that originated in Iran called Mulmul or Malmal, and eventually was perfected in India.

Painting, in opaque watercolour on paper, depicting a Muslim lady, in Deccani style. (c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London

6 – Back to the thread… Artisans even learned to spin at certain, high-humidty parts of the day in order to maintain the springiness of the cotton and create a finer product.

This art, as noted many places, is largely lost. You can see here some more muslin in art.

Painting, in opaque watercolour on paper, depicting a lady with a vina. She is seated in a broad chair and is waited on by a servant.

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London -- both figures are wearing embroidered muslin.

7 – Mughal Bangladesh is where we go, and at the time, it was known as being "paradise on Earth" for its unrivaled commerce, textiles, & wealth.

The Mughal emperors are to thank for this–the very same who ushered in the era of chintz. Shah Jahan featured below.

The Emperor Shah Jahan standing on a globe, with a halo and European-style putti, c. 1618–19 to 1629. - wearing a translucent muslin drape over his legs. Public domain.

8 – And of all the muslins, Dhaka was the most prized — the price was more than 26x that of even the finest silks. Even today's fine muslins don't come close to them.

The BBC article that circulated earlier this week was a good overview, but they do bury the lede a bit.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London - Length of unbleached muslin, with embroidered borders and ends in coloured, untwisted silks with flower and foliage design. Embroidery features three rows of flowers and leaves enclosed in buta patterns. Dhaka muslin from 1855.

9 – The reason that no one knows how to make Dhaka muslin is because the English purposefully, strategically, & devastatingly ruined the economy of the area once they learned how make muslin themselves.

Then they destroyed their competitors by taxing muslin over 75%.

A woman in fine Bengali muslin; reclining. Dhaka, 18th-century. Public domain.

10 – Couple that with a series of natural disasters & the extinction of their cotton plant – Gossypium arboreum var. neglecta (Phuti karpas) – and that's how it "disappears". It was cultural erasure. Deliberate.

Everything "Indian" became trendy. So you get bullshit like this.

Giuseppina Grassini by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun 2. An Italian woman posed in Indian-inspired garb.

11 – Can you tell I'm pissed off? I'm pissed off. Anyway.

Before muslin became the "trend", it was used primarily in fine clothing for men, in jama coats and turbans.

There are also some stunning jama coats and women's peshwaz gowns that exhibit the incredible detail.

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London - 1855 - Rajasthan - Un-lined jama (male garment) of red muslin with trimmings in silver-gilt gota (tinsel ribbon), crimped metal strips, and sequins made of clipped jewel beetle elytron (wing cases). The full and heavy skirt is embellished with vertical strips of silver gilt gota, finished at the hem with a wide band of gota faced on the back with a sinjaf (hem facing) of green cotton and trimmed with gota-moti (beaded cord covered in gota). The torso and sleeves patterned with gota patti (cut gota-work) and beetle wing case sequins in the shape of bands on the arms, large shoulder decorations, a large flower on the right chest, a large teardrop shaped decoration at the back neck, and strips down the back and along the closure at the front. The jama fastens on the left side, tied with green cords and six large decorative ties patterned with a chevron design in silver-gilt gota.

12 – Robert Clive was considered the conqueror of Bengal, & styled himself "Clive of India" — his excuse for plundering the region was basically, "Well, they are so rich and so prosperous they're basically asking for it."

This map is a great overview of what was made where.

Based on map by KN Chaudhuri (The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company: 1660-1760)

13 – Even among his contemporaries, Clive's motives were questioned. Which means he must have been one colossal asshole to get noticed!

Well, this picture is total evidence. I mean, what a wanker. Just. So. Gross. I hate showing art like this, but it really shows effed up it is.

George Clive and his family with an Indian maid, by Joshua Reynolds, 1765 - Public Domain

14 – Muslin took France by storm in the 18th century & its herald was Marie Antoinette. She scandalized high society by posing for a portrait in a muslin dress.

She was trying to evoke a "pastoral" appearance, but it did not endear her to the masses.

The autograph 1783 version, Wolfgarten Castle (Germany) - Marie Antoinette in a muslin "peasant" dress. Public domain.

15 – Not everyone lost their heads over muslin (ooof, sorry) quite like Marie, because the long Regency became the golden age of muslin.

You can't tell me that the high-waisted design of traditional Indian pieces didn't influence Georgian & Regency dress.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London - By 1810, brightly coloured and embroidered silks were as popular as white cotton and muslin for women's evening dresses. John Heathcote's bobbinet machine, patented in 1809, enabled fine net to be easily produced in wide widths for dresses, which could be hand-embroidered to achieve individual and attractive effects. Net dresses were worn with underdresses of plain silk, sometimes white, or in a matching colour.

Chenille (French for caterpillar) is a type of thick thread made by a weaving process. Cotton or silk is woven into a length of cloth which is then cut into very narrow strips, the severed weft threads creating the tufts which give the yarn its velvety texture. The dense colour of chenille thread creates a contrasting effect with the ground fabric.

Fashion leaders such as Empress Josephine, Napoleon's first wife, helped to popularise dresses of machine net, or 'tulle', which was also produced in France. She owned many machine-made net dre

16 – By the 18th c, England was cuckoo for India. Quoting Defoe: ‘It crept into our houses, our closers, our bedchambers; curtains, cushion, chairs, and at last beds themselves were nothing but Calicoes or Indian stuffs.’

"It."

 Robe à l'Anglaise
1784–87 - gown with large bustle/pannier, diamond shaped embroidery on the fabric. 

Met Museum - public domain. 

Cotton emerged as a fashionable fabric in the 1780s with the chemise à la reine, the cotton shift favored by Marie Antoinette beginning in this turbulent decade. As always, clothing had political and international implications. One of the chief reasons the Lyon silk manufacturers railed against the reductive modern attire is that their luxurious silks were being abandoned in favor of imported cottons from India, confirmed in the costume on the right by a weaver's mark in the selvage.

17 – And then came Jane Austen, and the long Regency, and what we now consider the "peak" of Western muslin.

Are the gowns beautiful? Yes. Are they "authentically English" — not even close. Yes, they afforded women more movement & comfort. But at what cost?

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London - 1808 - This early nineteenth century muslin dress is embroidered with clusters of flowers and leaves. The embroidery is worked in satin stitch, chain stitch and French knots, the design trails down across the front of the dress and around the scalloped hemline to simulate a draped tunic-style garment slit up the side seam.

The front of the bodice is made up of a panel of bias-cut muslin, which is sewn onto the skirt rather like the bib of an apron so that it can be placed in position at the neck with pins. When the pins are removed the bib front falls away to reveal linen underflaps which fasten across the bust to give support. This type of bodice construction was common during this period in this style of dress and is known as the high stomacher front.

18 – I knew about the appropriation of Indian fabrics. What I didn't know was the economic devastation of Bangladesh that lingers still.

It was rumored that the British had artisan's thumbs cut off to prevent them from weaving. Apocryphal or not, the impact was horrific.

Met Museum - long, typical shift gown from the early 19th century with a high waist; pale ivory with embroidery, capped sleeves. Public domain. 

Fine Indian muslin used in the Empire period was manufactured and embroidered in India and exported to Europe and America. The finest and most sheer cottons were coveted because for these qualities.

19 – Not to mention the idea of "purity" and what it would take to keep a gown clean. The $ of Dhaka muslin was huge, but everyone wanted it.

So, like with chintz, the English figured out how to do it & did it cheaper. Hence: many muslin wedding gowns like this one from 1837.

French dress, 1837. Wedding gown. Puffed romantic sleeves and slightly lower waist, more ivory design. Met Museum, public domain.

20 – The Bengali people lost their heritage, and though there are efforts to rekindle the art–including DNA sequencing extinct cotton–it is a stark reminder of the evils of imperialism.

This video gives you a view into the process of the handwork.

21 – Muslin production continued into the 20th century, but it is not as popular now. Still, there are some notable gowns, including this one that is pretty much Daphne's dress from #bridgertonnetflix.

It dates to 1810-1815, and those are beads on the muslin.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London - Evening gown made from white muslin embroidered with rows of small white glass tubular bugle beads. With a low round neck, short sleeves, gauged at the shoulder, and gathered under the arm, and a very high waist. The skirt is straight, with gores at the side, slightly gathered into the waist at the front and more tightly gathered at the back. The opening neck to the waist at the centre back and there is a drawstring through the neck to fasten at the centre front and the centre back. The bodice and skirt join at the waist where it is faced with white cotton twill.

22 – This one is quite something and is decorated with beetle wings (another thing from Mughal India).

Which reminds me: untreated muslin gowns with all those layers were TERRIBLE fire hazards. So much so that it was almost as bad as crinolines.

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London -  muslin dress with green accents. The wings of jewel beetles (buprestidae) were traditionally used to embellish textiles in South America and South and Southeast Asia. Emerald-green beetle-wing decoration became a symbol of high status in India during the Mughal period (1526-1756). Western traders in India then introduced these textiles to Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. British newspapers report on several women wearing dresses decorated with beetle wings at court during the late 1820s and early 1830s. By the 1860s beetle wings were being imported to Britain in volumes of 25,000 per consignment, to be applied to textiles in imitation of the Indian technique. The wings were cut, shaped and arranged in stylised floral patterns, often accented with metal thread. The wings would have glittered in candlelight, achieving a sought-after iridescent and jewel-like effect.

23 – And lastly, this wedding gown (1830) from a little earlier than the last — you can STILL see the influence of India in the embroidery, the draping, and the work. It's really all there.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London - During the 1820s and 1830s women's dress took on a sense of romantic fantasy. Sleeves ballooned in shape, and skirts fanned out to emphasise a tiny waist. Hairstyles and headgear became equally exuberant, in contrast to the classical simplicity of the turn of the century. Decoration and trimmings reflected a nostalgia for the costume of the past, seen in stomacher-shaped bodices and 'vandyked' (zig-zag shaped) collars inspired by portraits from the seventeenth century.

This dress may well have been a wedding dress as it is so rich in detail and trimmings. White weddings were becoming widespread as a result of the fashion for muslin dresses. Before the 1800s most people wore coloured dresses to their marriage ceremony, which they continued to wear for special occasions long after the event.

24 -Where do I end this? A few ways. One, to question everything. Question privilege. Question history. Question art history. There is so much written in the margins, so much crossed out.

I love Regency fashion as much as the rest. But it is not without serious complication.

25 – Second, watch this video. It's not making muslin in India, but it is making cotton fabric. And you can see just how much work goes in to hand-spinning.

26 – And lastly, understand that fabric isn't just this season's hot trends.

It's culture. And in many cases, it's erasure. It's up to us to look through the rose colored glasses of romanticism and the deliberate narrative of Imperialism, and go beyond.

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Painting, in opaque watercolour on paper, a lady awaiting her lover, about to cast off her ornaments (possibly an illustration to Vipralabdha Nayika), approached by two sarus cranes.

27 – The largest collections of Dhaka muslin remain in the UK.

Let that settle in. Anyway, here are some sources. LOTS of great reading here..

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

https://medium.com/illumination-curated/a-historical-journey-of-muslin-pride-485070bfe53b

https://www.parinita.co.in/pages/muslin

https://www.racked.com/2018/1/10/16854076/marie-antoinette-dress-slave-trade-chemise-a-la-reine

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

28 – More sources!

https://www.thecultureconcept.com/the-fabric-of-india-va-london-showcases-indian-textiles

http://dspace.bracu.ac.bd/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10361/537/Vol%202%20No%202.1%202005.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

https://alochonaa.com/2014/02/21/from-muslin-to-museum-the-rise-and-fall-of-bengals-textile-empire-1/

https://alochonaa.com/2014/02/25/from-muslin-to-museum-the-rise-and-fall-of-bengals-textile-empire-2/

https://alochonaa.com/2014/02/25/from-muslin-to-museum-the-rise-and-fall-of-bengals-textile-empire-2/

29 – Thanks for coming to my #ThreadTalk! Here's one last gorgeous look at an artisan making muslin today… just ethereal.

A weaver at a delicate loom, his hand transparent through the top of the ornately designed fabric.

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on March 22, 2021.