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Dhaka Muslin: Bangladesh's Textile Hub is Reviving a Long-Forgotten Elite Fabric

Dhaka muslin was made with tiny threads and it was famous throughout the world for its delicacy and thinness. During that time, they had a monopoly in Asia, Europe, North America, and Africa. Dhaka became the Mughal capital in 1608, but Bengalis had long been known for their fine craftsmanship.

Shivam Dwivedi
Ayub Ali Looks on as workers spin thread from cotton to make traditional muslin garments at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh
Ayub Ali Looks on as workers spin thread from cotton to make traditional muslin garments at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh

Mughal monarchs wore flowing gowns fashioned from the silk before it attracted European elites. Bangladesh is meticulously reconstructing a cloth previously worn by Mughal emperors, Marie Antoinette, and Jane Austen, but long thought lost to history, using wooden spinning wheels and hand-drawn looms.

About Dhaka Muslin:

Dhaka muslin was made with tiny threads and it was famous throughout the world for its delicacy and thinness. During that time, they had a monopoly in Asia, Europe, North America, and Africa. Dhaka became the Mughal capital in 1608, but Bengalis had long been known for their fine craftsmanship. The textile originally gave enormous wealth to the countries where it was spun.

Botanists had to go halfway across the world and return to find a plant that had been thought to be extinct. "No one knew how it was made," said Ayub Ali, a senior government official who is assisting with the project's rebirth.

He informed, "We lost the famed cotton facility, which generated the particular fine thread for Dhaka muslin." According to historians, the muslin trade once helped convert the Ganges delta and what is now Bangladesh into one of the world's most opulent regions.

Before the fabric dazzled European nobles and other notables at the end of the 18th century, generations of the Mughal empire, which ruled India at the time, wore flowing dress clothes woven from it.

Austen's muslin shawl, allegedly hand-embroidered by the Pride and Prejudice author herself, is on display at her former house in Hampshire, while Marie Antoinette is seen in a muslin robe in a 1783 picture of the French queen.

The industry, however, declined in the years after the East India Company's capture of the Bengal delta in the 18th century, clearing the way for British colonial domination. After the industrial revolution, England's mills and factories created much cheaper textiles, while European tariffs ruined the delicate fabric's export market.

Rare & Possibly Extinct

The five-year search for the unique flower needed to weave Bangladeshi muslin, which only grows near the city, of Dhaka, began with a rigorous five-year search. "Without Phuti carpus cotton, muslin cannot be woven. We needed to identify this unique and probably extinct cotton plant to resurrect Dhaka muslin," said Monzur Hossain, the scientist who oversaw the research.

His team used a seminal book on plants by 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, as well as a later historical tome on Dhaka muslin, to narrow down a possibility among 39 wild species collected around Bangladesh.

Due to a paucity of Dhaka muslin garment specimens in local museums, Hossain and his colleagues sought samples in India, Egypt, and the United Kingdom. Hundreds of artefacts acquired from Mughal-era Dhaka by East India Company merchants were shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London by curators.

The lost plant, discovered by botanists in the riverfront hamlet of Kapasia north of the capital, was already in their possession, according to genetic testing. "It was a perfect fit," Hossain said, "and some historical books suggest Kapasia was one of the areas where Phuti carpus was grown."

In order to increase yields and scale up production, the plant is now being produced in experimental farms.

Revival of Muslin Project:

However, the resurrection initiative hit another snag right away: finding weavers who could weave the plant's ultra-fine threads. Bangladesh has re-emerged as a global textile powerhouse in the two centuries since the muslin trade collapsed, albeit with an industry that no longer caters to royalty or other international elites.

Although there are plenty of garment workers in the country, the muslin project required artisans from a small cottage sector of spinners and weavers who deal with delicate threads. They identified candidates in villages around Dhaka, where small factories weave complex saris from jamdari, a fine cotton similar to muslin.

"I'm not sure how I achieved it." "However, it necessitates extreme focus," said Mohsina Akhter, one of the project's spinners. "You have to be in the right frame of mind to do it." You can't hand spin such a nice yarn if you're angry or concerned."

The crew spent months perfecting the art, working with threads four times finer than jamdari and two workers weaving an inch or less of cloth in eight hours of nonstop labour. "It's similar to praying." You must be completely focused. Any pause will rip the yarn and cause your work to go backwards," cautioned weaver Abu Taher.

"The more I work, the more I wonder how our forefathers were able to weave such beautiful garments." He informed, "It's almost impossible."

Because of the intensive labour required, clothing made from Dhaka muslin will always be boutique items, although the government has received some preliminary interest from established industry participants.

"We aim to make it a top global fashion item," says the designer. Parvez Ibrahim, whose family runs a manufacturing that supplies worldwide fashion shops, stated, "It has a rich history. However, in order to reduce costs, we must accelerate the manufacturing process. Otherwise, bringing Dhaka muslin back to life will be pointless."

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