When I was a teenage seamstress I loved plain, unwashed muslin, so light and cool. Loved it so much I sewed a blouse out of it.
What I did not realize until now was the complicated past of muslin, recounted by BBC, especially Dhaka muslin, as the most expensive fabric in the world two centuries ago, before losing all its value. It took sixteen steps to manufacture it with a type of cotton that grew only along the banks of a river in holy Mehgna in Bengal. Garments of this fabric stretched back to antiquity – it was thought that gods and goddesses wore Dhaka muslin.
Something I have always loved are the names of different fabrics. In the 18th century New York you could buy lutestring(fine silk), armozine (strong corded silk), baize (coarse wool), cypress ( cobweb-thin silk for mourning clothes), erminetta, ferrandine, gingerline, hum-hum, a kind of calico named “harlequin moth”. Colors had colorful names: yes there were pink and cinnamon, but can you summon up “flystale” or “mousecolored.”
Dhaka muslin had its own lore. It was said that it was so light and thin, you could keep a 60 foot piece in a snuffbox, or thread a sari through a wedding ring.
At some point Dhaka muslin began being sewn into saris for Indian women, and then the fashion jumped the ocean to become very risqué gowns for ladies. Marie Antoinette and Empress Josephine were fans. But weirdly, Dhaka muslin had disappeared by the early 20th century. Somehow, the cotton used to make it died out, along with the techniques for weaving it.
It’s easy to see why. This is from the BBC article that taught me everything I know about Dahka muslin: “ First, the balls of cotton were cleaned with the tiny, spine-like teeth on the jawbone of the boal catfish, a cannibalistic native of lakes and rivers in the region. Next came the spinning. The short cotton fibres required high levels of humidity to stretch them, so this stage was performed on boats, by skilled groups of young women in the early morning and late afternoon – the most humid times of day. Older people generally couldn’t spin the yarn, because they simply couldn’t see the threads.”
As for weavers, they were treated as geniuses. The miraculous stuff came in thread counts of 1,200. Then the British tried to horn in on the trade, and their muslin just didn’t rank. On to America, and cotton!