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Resurrecting an Ancient Fabric More Precious Than Silk That Hasn’t Been Spun for Centuries


In the fantasy genre, writers often invent some kind of special magical material, such as the “valerian steel” from the game of Thrones series, or the mithril chainmail of Frodo Baggins in the writings of JRR Tolkien.

Now in Bangladesh, a lost art of weaving that once created the most spectacular weaving the world has ever known is being revived, little by little and full of improvisations, to restore a piece of a nation’s intangible cultural heritage and national pride.

The material in question is called Dhaka muslin, and a characteristic piece of the BBC explains why one would be excused for thinking that his story was taken from The Lord of the rings.

Described in texts thousands of years old, Dhaka muslin is an ultra-fine, ultra-soft fabric made from a potentially extinct, shabby-looking cotton species that grows along the banks of the sacred Meghna River. Cotton, known locally as phuti karpas, was very delicate, easily cracked and frayed, and could only be cut under conditions of extreme humidity, sometimes artificially enhanced.

However, eventually, somewhere in the mists of time, ancient Bangladeshi weavers managed to turn this unseemly plant into the height of luxury fabrics, one that adorned Greek statues, Mughal emperors, the aristocracy of Europe, and even the Empress of France, Josephine Bonaparte.

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Its main properties were its lightness and transparency. The Mughals called it “woven air”, and described by a Dutch traveler in the 1700s as “made so fine that a piece twenty yards long or even longer could fit in an ordinary pocket snuffbox.”

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However, the subjugation of the local master weavers who passed down the secret of the creation of this cloth through the generations by the British East India Company resulted in the loss of many of the techniques, even to the day of today, and the scruffy cotton, which was no longer needed, receded into the wild.

The rebirth of muslin

It is not uncommon that history and progress do not always go hand in hand, and despite our current technological brilliance, the secrets of those weaver families in ancient Dhaka have not been restored.

Bengal Muslin

Yet one man is on his way to reestablishing Dhaka’s muslin trade as the world’s leading textile.

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Saiful Islam runs Bengal Muslin, a heritage building company that seeks to adapt ancient techniques and restore the phuki karpas cotton plant. He started down this path in 2013 when the company he worked for asked him to adapt an exhibition in English on the material for viewers in Bangladesh.

Born in Bangladesh, Islam felt he needed to do his own research, which resulted in several cultural exhibitions, a book, and a film commission, all of which led him and his colleagues to feel that perhaps it was possible, if only They could find the unique cotton: to restart the cottage industry around the legendary fabric.

In fact it did, and Bengal Muslin, her project dedicated to the fabric renaissance, now sells the real deal to buyers around the world, while also attending and organizing numerous events celebrating the craft.

However, none of this would be possible if phuki karpas could not be located and Islam had to sequence its DNA from a single 19th century pressed specimen kept in the Royal Botanical Gardens.

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Then, sailing up and down the Meghna River, a major feeder of the Ganges, he grabbed anything that looked like the printed image, eventually managing to find a plant that had roughly three-quarters of the same genetic code – an ancestor. , perhaps. .

Bengal Muslin

By growing it on an island in the middle of the river, Islam managed to produce enough to spin a thread using many improvisations to compensate for the lack of ancestral knowledge. The next part was finding someone to weave the yarn into a fabric.

National prestige

However, the historical value of Dhaka muslin did not translate into willing employees, oddly enough, especially due to the demand for a high thread count. Dresses and gowns kept in British and French museums and private collections have a thread count of 800-1,200, compared to modern cotton muslin of between 40 and 80 thread count.

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“None of them [the weavers] I wanted to work on this, actually, “says Islam Zaria Gorvett from the BBC. “Everyone said this is crazy. They said, ‘Thank you very much for telling us that story and heritage, but no thanks.’

Bengal Muslin

They eventually found a traditional Jamdani muslin weaver, and together they were able to create a Dhaka muslin fabric with a thread count of approximately 300 fibers per square inch. Their first traditional shirts, called saris, sold for thousands of dollars, and Islam is inspired that the legend of fabric quality is alive and well.

Bengal Muslin

“In this age of mass production, it is always interesting to have something special. And the brand is still powerful, ”he says. “It is a question of national prestige. It is important that our identity is not poor, with many garment industries, but also the source of the best textiles that have ever existed.

Featured Image: Muslin Bengal

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