Since ancient times, India has been known globally for its textiles. In the wide range of Indian textiles, the Indian muslin is in a league of its own.

Muslin was a favoured cloth for the Ottoman turbans. In an official inventory, made in 1640 CE, of all the goods available in the Istanbul market, there are 20 different kinds of Indian muslins mentioned. There was also a concern about the heavy demand for Indian textiles and goods in the Ottoman Empire and how this was ‘draining their wealth’.

The Indian Handwoven Muslin is known to have changed the fashion tastes of the West, too.  Queen Mary Antoinette and Empress Josephine, the first wife of Napoleon, popularised it in France and muslin became the most popular Indian import.

Undivided Bengal's muslin was exported to Rome under the name of ‘textalis ventalis'—woven air. The earliest known reference to muslin fabric is in Chanakya's Arthashastra. Muslin used to be a fabric as highly prized as silk. Things changed when India was colonised by the British. As Indian handwoven textiles became popular in Great Britain replacing the traditional wool industry, stringent laws were enforced to ensure people quit using the comfortable handwoven fabric from India.

In addition to this, Britain also flooded Indian markets with cheap mill-made goods and systematically destroyed the livelihoods of Indian weavers. They levied heavy taxes on the local weavers, to ensure they stop production and in some instances their thumbs were cut off to stop the production of muslin. It is a wonder that despite these unfavourable conditions, the Indian handloom industry still survives. India’s traditional knowledge systems held the secrets to creating this wondrous fabric.

The process of creating such fine muslin began even before the seed was planted. The seeds were specially treated before they were germinated. After drying them in the sun, they were placed in an earthen pot in which ghee had been kept. The pot was then sealed and hung from the ceiling of the hut at the height of an average individual over the kitchen fire to keep it moderately warm.

Textile historian John and Felicity Wild noted that while a great many varieties of ‘largely plain cotton’ were produced in the three areas of Gujarat, the Coromandel coast and Bengal, it was the east coast and especially the Ganges Valley that offered the finest qualities’. 

It is said that the muslin produced from a cotton plant that grew exclusively on a particular stretch of the Brahmaputra river was amongst the finest. The upper jaw of a catfish which has razor-sharp teeth was used to comb this raw cotton before ginning and spinning. Women were preferred to weave owing to their supple fingers. Since the air had to have the right kind of moisture while weaving, water bowls were kept next to them while weaving. Out of the total harvest, only 8% could be used to produce the finest of the yarns for muslin.

The particular cotton seed which was used back then is said to be extinct today. Today, the quality of muslin has suffered, since the finesse and techniques of producing such fine cloth have been lost over the years.

Muslin is not a Persian word, nor Sanskrit, nor Bengali, so the name was likely given by Europeans to cotton cloth imported by them from Mosul (Iraq), and when they saw the fine cotton goods in India, they gave the same name to those fabrics.

A lot of places have mentioned that muslin is said to have originated from Mosul (Iraq) without mentioning that in due time it was established that muslin— renowned for its legendary lightness—came from the far east of undivided India.

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Chinmaya Udghosh