Made by Fairies – a tale of Dacca muslin

By Nafisa Mayukh

The ancient Romans described it as “woven wind”, while renowned Sufi musician Amir Khusrow, compared it to “…skin of the moon”. From the Far East, Xuanzang, a seventh-century Chinese traveller in the records of his chronicles of India, resembling “the light vapours of dawn” as did the British colonial ambassador of the Jewel, Edward Baines, to be “work of fairies…rather than of men”. 

If any of these imageries painted in your imagination anything similar to that of cloth or fabric, well, you can count me out. Because, never in a million year would I have thought it to be descriptions of a type of fabric, a textile, merely weaved out of cotton, let alone one that has its origin to that of mineーBangladesh.

Unquestionably enough, these are some of the very descriptions of a piece of textile, so magical, so fable-likeーthat the only ways to describe it, is as if derived from nature, only unearthly creatures that of mermaids and fairies can create. 

And believe it or not, it isn’t just a fragment from fairy-tales butーa matter of real tactile existence. 

My curiosity over this fable-like fabric all begun on an uneventful evening, when my boredom brought me to peruse through my mother’s vast collection of saris. My nosy self couldn’t help but pester her (as per usual) with miscellaneous questions onー“who did you inherit this one from?”, “what’s so special about this one?” ーand most importantly, what was the story behind each.

Sari, in its core, is a distinctive garment worn by women of the South Asian diaspora, a 6-yard worth of fabric requiring expert techniques for draping around the body, coming in different designs and materials, made up of varied fabrics. 

While most connoisseurs of Hindi cinema would recognise sari as a bedazzled garment, adorned by scandalous heroines of Bollywood like―Kajol and Kareena Kapoor―my experience with the garment growing up was fairly different, seeing it on religious grandmas to aunties selling vegetables down the street. 

Of course, to forget not, my own mother, with her accumulated collection over the years, all the way from back home. A collection, fairly unassuming, until my eyes fell upon a particular one― purple in the shade of aubergines, contrasted against clean white, blossoms of geometric patterns. There was no bling on this one, no intricate embroideries or bedazzling gems stitched upon it. But it stood out from the rest, hanging crisp on its designated hanger. 

Anticlimactically enough, it wasn’t muslin, the protagonist of our story (sorry for the disappointment). But close enough, it was another textile with the name of jamdani a descendent of the said muslin.  

Jamdani, which translates to “flowers in a container”, is often cited as the surviving variety of muslin. The fabric utilises a similar method of weaving, winning it the title of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013.

You see, I am not much of a fashionable person. But I find myself in an unwitting fascination over traditional clothes and textiles, especially those holding ethnic identity, transcending decades and generations, dripping with rich culture, heritage and history. Or it’s just my typical first-generation South-Asian immigrant mentality harbouring this constant romanticism over my own culture.

Thus, begun my nitty-gritty exploration on the web, from the notorious world Wikipedia threading me to a particular article published on  AramcoWorldーa US-based magazine, dedicated to exploring cross-cultural knowledge of the Arab and Muslim world. 

The article titled ‘Our Story of Dhaka Muslin’ outlined not only the historical rise and fall of muslin, but much of the effort projected in the decades for the revival of this legendary fabric. Coincidentally enough, it became the source of my inspiration for writing this very article. 

What about it that’s so extraordinary?

During the Mogul Era, the alluring fabric has been said to be exclusively reserved for that of emperors and aristocrats. In one particular story, princess Zeb-un-Nissa was scolded by her father, Emperor Aurangzeb for appearing at court, inadequately dressed in transparent clothing, when in actuality she was draped in not one, but seven layers of the said fabric. 

Hence, the airy nature of the textile, as if the wearer is engulfed by clumps of wind.

The fabric was said to be so soft, so delicate, that yards of the textile could easily pass through a single finger ring. 

Even one of the most prominent writers of the eighteenth century, Jane Austen, was charmed by its quality, as she wrote about it in a letter to her sister “…I am getting very extravagant and spending all my money and… I have been spending yours too in a linen-draper’s shop, which I went to for check’d muslin, and for you… I was tempted by a pretty coloured muslin…”

As matter of fact, many of the delicate gowns of the Regency Era made use of this very same Bengal muslin, imported to England from Dacca (now Dhaka), the capital of Bangladesh. One of such adorned by Austen’s titular protagonist Henry Tilney in ‘Northanger Abbey’, who exclusively wore white.

Unfortunately, now, when ‘muslin’ is searched on the internet, chances are the top results generated would direct you to a plain cotton textile, described as being loosely weaved, in depressing shades of beige. 

Sadly enough, muslin, as a fabric has come to be known most commonly in the West as a cheap material used by seamstresses, in creating mock-ups before the actual creation of the clothing takes placeーa description far from the magnificence of Dacca muslin it originally withheld.

So, how did this fabric go from nobility status to seamster’s draft fabric?

Like many tragic tales of the subcontinent, the magic and mystery of this mystifying fabric were brought to an end, by none other than─The Great British Colonialism. 

Much of the local myths will tell you the grotesque tales of the British cutting off of thumbs of the weavers, simultaneously cutting off the industry; physically decapitating them from continuing to produce muslin. While much of it remains as a local legend, a myth, fuelled by the sufferings of the colonial era, the legend acts almost as an analogy for the industry’s real historical downfall.

By the early 19th century, Dacca became the capital of muslin, known for the production of best of its kind―with weavers weaving up to an unbelievable 1000 thread-count per fabric─highest quality of muslin, the world has seen. Thus, begin too, the unbelievable demand for the fabric, especially in Europe.

However, the production required precise care, with the process taking an enormous amount of time and energy that could not withhold the increasing demands.

The cotton plant itself is a specific species called Gossypium arboreum var. Neglecta, locally known as ‘phuti karpas’ that only grows along the line of the holy Gangetic rivers. The individual fibres of the cotton plant would then be combed between the fine debris of boalee (catfish) jawbones, producing threads fine enough to create the softness and sheerness it’s known for. 

According to Saiful Islam, a UK-based Bangladeshi who has been leading a research under the affiliation of the nonprofit Drik Picture Library, in an effort to revive muslin and its legacy, the extensive labour and arduous months of work required would become just the beginning of Dacca muslin’s downfall

According to Islam, the biggest cause has been Britain’s Industrial Revolution at the time; “They took the raw material from here, and shipped the finished cotton product back to India, thus hastening the demise of muslin”.

The British’s attempt to mass-produce it outside its natural habitat proved futile, mostly given the differences in climatic conditions, giving birth to the low-quality muslin fabric, widely known today.

This, combined with the wave of famine and dire poverty hitting the region, forced the weavers to turn to agriculture for survival, unable to keep up the legacy, even upon independence from the English. Eventually, leading to the tragic end of the glorious days of Dacca muslin.

Today, the reminisce of the mystical Dacca muslin remains widely unknown to many. To some, it is almost inconceivable that the regionーthe city of Dhaka, in present known to the world for its slum-ridden textile factoriesーwas once known for one of the most prized possession of fabric known to man.

Not fabrics that the world dubs low quality made not by child labour in harsh garment factories, butーas if, made by fairies.*** 

(This article is written as part of the individual assignment series for Feature Writing class)

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