Trace The Story Of This Fine Fabric That Goes All The Way Back To The 2nd Century
At the Summer/Resort 2017 edition of Lakmé Fashion Week, celebrated designer Gaurang Shah showcased pristine whites and hints of gold and silver in a collection titled Muslin. It was a welcome break from the usual popping greens, reds and oranges. While muslin was not the only cloth used, it did grab the spotlight on the runway as models sashayed down in the wispy material. Much like Shah, in the recent past, multiple designers have taken a liking towards the diaphanous cloth and have made attempts to cement its charm in the global market. Rohit Bal, Suket Dhir, Rahul Mishra and Sanjay Garg are some who’ve experimented with muslin. But the story and history of the gossamer fabric goes way back to the 2nd century.
Much before the Industrial Revolution and mechanisation wiped out all the looms of the then-thriving industry, muslin was equated with royalty and beauty; it wooed the imagination of poets, caressed the bodies of princesses and pulled the pockets of those who could afford it — few fabrics held such a charm. When the craft won the attention of the weavers of Europe, their attempt to copy the elaborate processes resulted in a mechanised version, which forced indigenous craftsmen out of jobs and into extinction. Lost was the spinning and shuttling of the fabric that was commonly called ‘woven air’ and ‘the skin of the moon’.
The delicate material was a favourite of the Mughals, who were known to pair it with precious jewellery — think pearls and rubies. ‘A diaphanous fabric so fragile, it was reputed to last only one night of wear — Aurangzeb chided his daughter for appearing nude when she was actually draped in seven layers of it. Thumbs were said to have been cut off to prevent Bengal’s weavers and spinners from making the superfine fabric, giving England a monopoly in trade. And Napoleon is said to have torn the dresses off Josephine and her daughters on suspecting that the muslin was made by his archenemy,’ writes artist and art critic Gopika Nath.
Muslin was defined as a broad category of fabric encompassing fine, white or off-white cotton cloth that was plain, edged with gold or red; woven or embroidered with motifs, and seldom dyed. Not many places produced such fine muslin, and among them, Dhaka muslin set the quality benchmark. ‘Muslin — what magic does the name hold? What mystery lies behind the filaments of this fabric? Who wove it? Who wore it?’ are some of the questions Saiful Islam asks and answers in his book Muslin: Our Story that captures the historic significance, traces its evolution into a thing of fashion and focuses on the processes involved in making it. Islam, who is the CEO of Drik, an internationally reputed multimedia organisation based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has over the past few years, extensively researched the topic with the assistance of curators, weavers and artisans, locally and globally. The ultimate goal of the endeavour was to inspire revival and retell the story of muslin from the point of view of craftsmen. And with veterans like Bal (who is known for exquisite elaborate designs in muslin) to Dhir (who has created fluid modern silhouettes) and Mishra (whose jamdani dresses have been worn by international influencers) there might be a wave of resurgence in the air.
But beyond the realm of commercial fashion, there are textile designers with strong convictions who have made laudable contributions that help sustain the craft. One such dedicated name is Santanu Das of Maku Textiles. “Around six years ago, Das had just begun his experiments with indigo, jamdani and muslin when we launched his collection at Artisans. He has worked with very fine muslin and used indigo for the extra weft of jamdani, making it even more precious. Revival of all three is significant as they are all part of our history. There are fashion designers who have worked with muslin but because of the pressure to produce something new every season, their agenda is different, whereas Das has taken it as his medium,” says Radhi Parekh, Founder and Director of Artisans’ gallery, Mumbai. She adds, “Sabyasachi (Mukherjee) at his Kala Ghoda store had this precious 200 to 300 count muslin in a glass jar. He began to work with Jyotish Babu, an expert artisan, who has since worked with many designers but none of them have continued to collaborate with him other than Das.
Of course, muslin is so fine and comfortable to wear, that you have takers still; for example, brands like Shades of India, and few other labels that are layering other materials with muslin,” she adds. There aren’t many artisans like Jyotish Babu left, and even fewer people to help them develop and hone the art. Ruby Pal Chowdhury, honorary general secretary, Crafts Council of West Bengal, played a key role in nurturing Babu to revive jamdani around a decade ago. Almost synonymous with muslin, “jamdani is a technique where an extra weft is woven into the cloth in a way that is almost like embroidery,” Parekh explains.
As she talks about muslin being a precious commodity, she also recalls extremely fine dhotis that were worn by commoners in Bengal. The glossy and transparent cloth is the most appropriate material for our weather, especially in khadi yarn. “To create a khadi yarn you have to twist the threads. That acts as a capillary action which absorbs one’s sweat. It only seems practical to have more of the wispy cloth in our closets; unfortunately the quantity it is being produced in is miniscule today. If we are not able to sustain the market it is going to die another death,” laments Parekh.
That said, all things precious such as pashmina or khadi that have been revived on a larger scale than before face this challenge due to their price points. People are also creating mill-spun yarn, which brings the prices down considerably. On the bright side, thanks to the sustainability story in the Indian fashion industry, there is a huge interest in all things handmade. And even though, as Parekh predicts, India may take a bit of time to be on par with Paris or Japan in terms of demand for handwoven and handmade, there has never been a better time than now to start a conversation about its revival, something the royal fabric has been waiting a while for.