There are mentions of a legendary fabric in various folklore and historical records, so refined and delicate that a 50-metre-long piece could be squeezed into a single matchbox, and a dress made from it could pass through a signet ring.
This fabric was called the "Muslin of Dhaka."
During the 16th century, the Mughals brought with them Persian weavers to work with native master artisans of ancient India. Together they created a figured Muslin (figured designs or motifs on a fine muslin base), which is what we know as our beloved Jamdani.
One of the finest Muslin textiles in Bengal, Jamdani is a proud heritage of the Bangladeshi weavers of Sonargaon, Rupganj and Siddhirganj in the Narayanganj district. Its designs are unique, delicate and suggestive of the floral motifs woven into the Muslin. It is a technique that has traditionally been handed down from generation to generation through oral instructions from master to apprentice.
The industry, however, experienced a gradual fade into oblivion since the mid-19th century, during the British colonial period. The fall of the Mughal Empire deprived artisans of their most influential patrons and the use of machinery in the English textile industry, as well as the subsequent import of lower quality, but cheaper yarn from Europe contributed to this industry's decline.
Fine Jamdanis are replicas of the legendary Muslins from folklore and historical records. They are a distant cousin of the regular cheaper Jamdanis commonly available in the region. And fine Jamdanis, presently, are on the brink of extinction.
Fast versus slow fashion
Perhaps one of the earliest examples of the impact of "fast fashion," - mass-producing garments at low cost, and bringing them to retail stores quickly while demand is at its highest - is how it contributed to Jamdani's decline.
On the other hand, slow fashion advocates for manufacturing clothes with respect to people, the environment and animals. Contrary to the global industrial fashion practices, slow fashion involves working with local artisans and employs the use of eco-friendly materials. The goal is to preserve traditional, authentic products and reduce the negative impacts on the environment.
In a recent conversation with The Business Standard, renowned designer Maheen Khan spoke about the importance of slow fashion in Bangladesh, which is an integral part of the "Slow Movement," highlighting the fact that faster does not always mean better.
Maheen Khan is one of the strongest advocates of slow fashion in the country and a well-known pioneer in the design industry of Bangladesh.
She began her career as Chief Design Coordinator in Aarong in 1986, and professional milestones followed. She went on to establish Mayasir in 2001 and employed the use of local fabrics such as khadi, cotton, silk and Muslin. She is credited for major contributions such as creating a market for garments which features local and traditional designs. She is also the Founder and President of the Fashion Design Council of Bangladesh, a non-profit organisation which has advocated for slow fashion since its inception.
'Our local industry needs to grow'
As a professional in the country's fashion industry with more than three decades of work under her belt, Maheen Khan has a few pointers about how the industry can make progress and move forward.
People in Bangladesh tend to take pride in everything that is foreign. Designers are constantly looking to other countries for inspiration for their work and innovation.
"As a result, the rich culture and heritage are under-valued by people here. Bangladeshi garments are exceptionally rich and beautiful, replete with intricate embroideries and designs; a defining mark of our tradition," said Maheen Khan.
Additionally, "our local industry needs to grow, and it should cater to the people of Bangladesh. We are a nation where people are inherently in tune with tradition," she said, "We wear saris and panjabis during festivities, we like that essence of traditional design. Young generations wear clothing that is very modern, but that does not necessarily mean that it cannot have a touch of local or folk flavour to it."
The Muslin and Jamdani are amongst a long list of traditional products that are on the decline in recent times.
The know-how and techniques to weave the delicate textiles (Jamdani or Muslin) are often passed down from master to apprentice, from father to son and mother to daughter. As parents, the artisans naturally want better lives for their children, they feel convinced to find better means of a living for their children, and in turn, the age-old traditions are lost to time.
Moreover, artisans cannot sustain a livelihood based on their craft any longer due to increased competition from fast products, lack of marketing and unfair wage practices, among other issues.
"Slow fashion is a way of supporting artisan communities, and as a result, it revives designs that are developed from tradition," explained Maheen, adding "There is a renewed interest in consciously responsible products all over the world. Some of which are green and some of which are handmade."
'People would be more interested in a product with real-world applications'
Maheen also said that slow products are not exclusive to women's garments only. It can be beneficial for a range of products, but she also emphasised on functionality before form and beauty.
"We need to invest in things that have functional uses. It is nice to make something beautiful, but I believe people would be more interested in a product with real-world applications," she said. "We need to conduct proper research, documentation and evaluation of the market."
Slow fashion, however, does not mean fashion houses have to use only natural products from the very start. There is a lack of access to such products as it is, but the practice can be gradually incorporated. An example would be the use of natural dyes.
"People presently don't have access to large scale natural dye workshops as of yet. Products can be artificially dyed, but it is not something that we would like to see in the future," said Maheen.
Aranya has been using natural dyes since its inception. There are also other organisations that have supported artisans on a grassroots level on a much larger scale.
"If more brands were using natural dyes, it could potentially inspire a lot of these young generations of entrepreneurs, studios and designers to use something more natural, something more homegrown, and something that is inherently Bangladeshi," explained Maheen.
Maheen, however, believes that it is up to the next generation to bring about this change.
New avenues, a new generation and heritage
"Why are there not more young people in the creative industry? Does everyone need to be an investment banker? Don't we need writers, playwrights, musicians, and artists? They are the ones who will be the storytellers of the future; the intellectuals, the thinkers," she said, "Art and music are neglected in schools in Bangladesh while it is celebrated in the rest of the world."
She believes that the next generation needs to be encouraged to look into the slow fashion work they have been doing. They are great with social media marketing, reaching out to buyers, and most importantly, they will come into the industry with fresh new ideas. It is up to them to find new avenues for the industry, according to Maheen Khan.
"They are not dinosaurs like us, you know. They are faster and they are more intelligent. And if we can encourage them to engage themselves with our slow fashion industries such as jute, handmade paper, etc; they will accomplish amazing things," she said.