“Woven air”: Bangladesh revives a forgotten elite fabric

TARABO (AFP) – With wooden spinning wheels and hand-drawn looms, Bangladesh is painstakingly resurrecting a fabric once worn by Marie Antoinette and Jane Austen but long considered lost forever in history.

Dhaka muslin was sewn from threads so fine that popular European drawing room folklore held that a change in light or a sudden downpour would render its wearer seemingly naked.

The textile once brought magnificent wealth to the lands where it was spun.

But to revive it, botanists had to hunt halfway around the world and return for a plant thought to have disappeared from the face of the earth.

“No one knew how it was made,” said Ayub Ali, a senior government official who helped pilot the stimulus package.

“We have lost the famous cotton mill, which provided the special fine yarn for the Dhaka muslin,” he told AFP.

The muslin trade at one time helped transform the Ganges Delta and what is now Bangladesh into one of the most prosperous regions in the world, historians say.

ABOVE AND BELOW: A cotton plant at the Bangladesh Cotton Development Farm; Ayub Ali watches workers spinning cotton yarn; and a weaver uses a hand loom to make traditional muslin garments at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj. PHOTOS: AFP

Flowing garments woven from the cloth were worn by generations of the Mughal dynasty that then ruled India before the cloth enchanted European aristocrats and other notables in the late 18th century.

A muslin shawl belonging to Austen – supposedly hand-embroidered by the Pride and Prejudice author herself – is on display at her former home in Hampshire, while a 1783 portrait of Marie Antoinette depicts the Queen French girl in a chiffon dress.

But the industry collapsed in the years after the East India Company conquered the Bengal Delta in the 18th century, paving the way for British colonial rule.

The mills and factories that sprung up in England after the Industrial Revolution produced much cheaper textiles, while European tariffs killed off the overseas market for delicate fabric.

The quest to bring back Bangladeshi muslin began with a painstaking five-year search for the specific flower used to weave the fabric, which only grows near the capital Dhaka.

“Muslin cannot be woven without Phuti Carpus cotton. So to revive Dhaka Muslin, we needed to find this rare and possibly extinct cotton plant,” said Monzur Hossain, the botanist who led the effort.

His team consulted 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 candidate from among 39 different wild species collected from across Bangladesh.

With local museums lacking any specimens of Dhaka muslin garments, Hossain and his colleagues traveled to India, Egypt, and Britain to obtain samples.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, curators showed them hundreds of Mughal-era Dhaka pieces imported by East India Company merchants.

Genetic samples revealed the missing plant was already in their hands, found by botanists in the riverside town of Kapasia, north of the capital.

“It was a 100% match, and some history books say Kapasia was one of the places where Phuti Carpus was grown,” Hossain told AFP.

The plant is now cultivated on experimental farms with the aim of increasing yields and increasing production.

But the revival project immediately ran into another hurdle: finding weavers nimble enough to weave the factory’s ultra-fine yarns.

In the two centuries since the collapse of the muslin trade, Bangladesh has once again become a global textile hub, but with an industry that no longer caters to royalty or other international elites.

Instead, Dhaka is now home to countless factories bustling with the global fast fashion trade, supplying huge brands such as H&M and Walmart, with its $35 billion in annual garment exports second only to China.

The country has no shortage of garment workers, but the muslin project needed to find artisans from the small cottage industry of spinners and weavers working with fragile yarns.

They found candidates in villages around Dhaka where small workshops make intricate sarees from jamdari, a fine cotton produced in the same way as muslin.

“I don’t know how I did it. But it requires supreme concentration,” said Mohsina Akhter, one of the spinners brought into the project. “To do that, you have to be in the perfect frame of mind. If you’re angry or worried, you can’t hand spin such fine yarn.

It took the team months to master the loom, working with yarn four times finer than jamdari, with two people taking eight hours of non-stop labor to weave an inch or less of fabric.

“It’s like saying prayers. You have to have total concentration. Any deviation will tear the thread and set back your work,” said Abu Taher, a weaver.

“The more I work, the more I wonder how our ancestors wove such a beautiful garment. It’s almost impossible,” he told AFP.

The intense labor required means that all garments sewn from Dhaka muslin will always remain a boutique product, but the government has found some interest from established players in the industry.

“We want to make it a leading global fashion item. It has a great history,” said Parvez Ibrahim, whose family owns a factory that supplies global fashion retailers.

“But to reduce costs, we need to speed up the production process. Otherwise, reviving Dhaka muslin will mean nothing,” he told AFP.

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