The Magnificence of Muslin

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With its light and airy texture, muslin is a fabric that is both classy and has a character that makes it unlike any other.

A few months back I had the opportunity to see a well-researched film called ‘The Legend of the Loom’ that traces a 2000-year-old journey of muslin from the Mahabharata to the rivers of Bengal, where the cotton plant grew. The brainchild of Saiful Islam, a Bangladeshi textile revivalist who shuttles between the United Kingdom and Bangladesh, he is doing much to revive muslin. The fabric itself is so fine that tales of an entire sari being able to pass through a ring is well known. In fact the 14th century Sufi poet and scholar Amir Khusrau described muslin as “a hundred yards of it can pass through the eye of the needle, so fine is its texture, and yet the point of the steel needle can’t pierce through it easily. It is so transparent and light that it looks as if one is in no dress at all but has only smeared the body with pure water.”

YAJY Muslin Kurta
YAJY Muslin Kurta

The Specifics

Muslin is a woven cotton fabric made in a wide range of counts from delicate sheers to coarse sheeting. The uniqueness of the fabric lies in the weave of it that helps creating a texture. Muslin used to be traded in Machilipatnam in South India and at Mosul in Iraq while it was always made in Bengal using phuti karpas, a special cotton plant that grew along the banks of the Meghna and Shitalakshya rivers. The demand for the fabric was high during the time of the Mughals but it was the Nawabs of Murshidabad and Dhaka who patronised it. Muslin was worn by royalty especially by kings and queens. Muslin that has flowered or figured motifs is Jamdani and muslin itself has variants like plain, striped and chequered. Muslin thread becomes stronger when put in water and has a good grip for the weaver. Spinning is the backbone of this industry and without spinning there is no muslin. Strength and the delicacy of the yarn makes it what it is. The fact that muslin is used the world over to create toile and trials of patterns are proof of how crucial the fabric is to the industry. It is versatile, sturdy when required to be or can be mounded or sculpted as desired. It is quite an underestimated material but can transform with the right handling, treatment that is dyeing, washing and other processes that are applied to ready fabrics. The width that muslin is woven in varies from 45” to 120” in some rare cases making it ideal for toiles due to its low cost.

Revival Notes

Muslin as a fabric has always been a preference and will be used increasingly in the forthcoming collections. It is creating emphasis on the work of the artisan and the culture of weaves. “Muslin is a revival package for the artisans since it is used in combination with other raw fabrics for manufacturing an outfit hence making a statement. Garments such as kurta, dupatta, sarees are either made of muslin or has got muslin incorporated in it. Muslin will be used in the collection in an effective manner since it will set trends for ecofriendly fashion for both upcycling and reuse,” says Aditya Jain, CEO, YAJY by Aditya Jain. The problem with revival also stems from the fact that the plant that was used originally is no longer available. “As plant DNA is difficult to recreate and the original plant will not be able to be revived. There are five types of muslin including jamdhani. In order to bring back belief to the weavers we choose jamdhani as it had difficult motifs and colours as this had been lost. Having a sound sense of the past is a good way to make new designs and a good foundation will help you move forward. Altering designing with a specific purpose is always welcome,” says Islam. The state of weaving muslin is a on a decline but there are pockets of resurgence. Some pockets do well based on demand and this is a profession not by choice but by heritage. “It has to be supported at a policy level and taxes on yarn need to go. Value has to be placed and if the weavers operate at the level of artistry rather than compete with mill products they will benefit largely,” adds Islam.

Now Trending

In keeping with a conscious need to migrate, albeit slowly, towards slow fashion, lesser consumption and reducing waste, Muslin as fabric should be brought onto fashion and apparel platforms more aggressively by designers and retail brands alike. It is an ideal fabric for any season. Jewellyn Alvares, HOD, School of Fashion, Whistling Woods International adds, “dresses, tunics, shirts, kurtas, trousers are just a few silhouettes that are made with muslin and variations of them. Muslin hasn’t gone out of trend so mentioning a revival is questionable. There are constant innovations being done with the fabric. The thickness varies. It can be used to make garments without linings, or as light layers to throw over or be worn under, making it ideal for any climates.”

Overcoming Obstacles

A key challenge with muslin is it requires a combination with another material to make it voguish from classic. “The only challenge using muslin is that after it has been cut up as toiles, whether at an atelier or in a fashion school pattern lab, it goes waste. There have to be ways to transform even these toiles into utility garments of some kind. Upcycling these pieces are imperative. There was once a student whose toiles looked way better than the final line up, she was thus advised to showcase the toiles after dyeing them in the original colour palette,” adds Alvares. Considering that Muslin is a raw fabric, much like denim, it needs a considerable amount of processing, it cannot contribute to polluting any further. Effective measures have to be taken to ensure that these processes are eco-sensitive.

This story first appeared in the Nov 2019 issue of Apparel Magazine here:

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