Light as a feather, delicate like dew drops in dawn, translucent even after multiple layers – muslin was once one of the most coveted fabrics in the world. During Mughal era, Bengal was famous as the main exporter of this exquisitely spun and woven fabric.
There were different types of muslin, each finer and more delicate than the other.
One of them was named Aab-e-Rawan, the Farsi words meaning the muslin was like 'flowing water'; another was named Shabnam, a type of muslin compared with morning dew; there was a particular one named Nayansookh, which literally meant 'pleasing to the eyes'.
For Bangladeshis, stories of how Bengal's Muslin was coveted around the globe are a part of childhood legends. Those stories, however, were a cause for much lamentation and loss as well, because we were also told how the British systematically destroyed the Muslin industry and that the art and craft behind the production had been lost forever.
That was until very recently, when a group of researchers in Bangladesh reportedly reproduced this muslin under a project titled 'Rediscovering the technology of muslin and reviving its production,' which was initiated in 2014. Work began fully from 2015.
The project is managed by the Government of Bangladesh at the direction of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The initial committee which was to oversee the project included five organisations – University of Rajshahi, Cotton Development Board, Bangladesh Handloom Board, Bangladesh University of Textiles (BUTEX) and University of Dhaka.
The project has been hailed as a success and welcomed by all and sundry. Yet some questions remain regarding whether the Dhakai muslin can fully revive its past glory or not.
How well does the revived Muslin compare to the different varieties of the original? Also, given the finesse required in its production, what are the prospects of scaling up production for commercial use?
According to experts, unless muslin has its particular characteristics of being very thin and delicate and having a sort of raw, white colour, one cannot really call it muslin.
Getting the yarn from the cotton, then spinning them and weaving them into cloth is a painstakingly long process, and these are skills which are passed down in the family for generations.
According to a recent report by the BBC, Dhakai muslin had thread counts in the range of 800-1200.
When we spoke to the Chief Scientist of the project Professor M Monzur Hossain, he admitted that finding the right cotton variety, spinners, and weavers took them a long time. He mentioned that the yarn counts (warp and weft) of the project's muslin were an average of 500.
"We spent eight long months in finding the right sample of muslin in the country and ultimately we had to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to see it and study it. The second hardest part was going on expeditions all around the country to find the right cotton variety. We even went deep into the Chattogram Hill Tracts," he said, adding that truly the most difficult part was getting the yarn from the cotton.
They were mindful about the old process, and tried to recreate as much of it as possible.
Textile engineers in the team selected experienced Khadi spinners from Cumilla and after asking nearly 2,000 weavers, one from Rupganj agreed. The engineers even helped in creating models of spinning wheels based on the original ones.
In the olden days, muslin spinners were young women and it was believed that their soft hands were essential for making the ideal muslin yarns.
For the project, special attention was paid to keep the spinners' hands soft and they were asked to refrain from doing household chores which could cause the skin to become calloused.
It was also important to keep the psychological state of the spinners and weavers stable because making muslin requires utmost attention; if one step is missed, it would affect the fabric's quality.
Eminent fashion designer Bibi Russell congratulated the team who recreated muslin because she herself tried to do it for years and could not succeed; it was a mammoth task which also required heavy investment.
She said, "We created history with a piece of fabric and now we have revived it. In our 50 years of independence, indeed it is a great achievement for us. Making muslin is an art and we must ensure its sustainability".
Founder of Studio Emdad and Director of Banglar Mela Emdad Hoque said, "I know in Kolkata they tried to recreate muslin with 400 yarn counts and I got to know that the muslin here was made with around 500 yarn counts. If that is the case, then it is indeed a thing of great pride for us."
Kay Kraft Founder Khalid Mahmood Khan also thinks the muslin project is a commendable step.
"There was a time when we were famous throughout the world because of our muslin. If lost things continue to be revived with proper patronisation, we would be the happiest. The team deserves huge respect for their effort," he opined.
It is true that a lot of effort, time, and investment were poured into reviving muslin, but the key question is: can we produce it for commercial use?
Monzur Hossain says that the muslin revival project's main objective was to restore the technology and the materials which are needed to make muslin.
They did the work needed for the first phase, and the second phase involving the process of commercialisation has not yet started; but most likely the government has plans to do it.
According to Emdad Hoque, if we aim for global production, the muslin's quality has to be ensured. At the same time, the viability of commercial production has to be checked because muslin is very expensive due to the time and effort it requires.
Khalid Mahmood Khan recommended, "If we want to go into commercial production, we will have to ensure that the cotton, the yarn, the fabric – everything is of top quality. We will have to create an appropriate hype surrounding it".
In Manzur Hossain's opinion, Dhakai Muslin does have a commercial prospect. "Before I got involved in the project, I had met a Japanese apparel businessman who told me that Dhakai Muslin can become a billion dollar brand. Not only sarees, it can be used to make a variety of clothes."
The chief scientist said that there is a plan to involve fashion houses in the country and organise a grand exhibition. "We do want our designers and fabric experts to see and evaluate the muslin. After all, they are ones who would eventually be commercialising and popularising it," he said.
Making muslin is an extensive process which requires adept spinners and weavers; therefore, its mass production would be fairly difficult.
Even if muslin is commercially produced, it would not become a household item, and will cater to niche consumers.
From cultivating the cotton to weaving the muslin yards into a saree, it takes months. And just like any exclusive and handwoven fabric, this muslin too would be expensive.
The original muslin used to be a premium product, and the one revived through the project would also most likely remain so.