Muslin Through the Ages

Muslin Fabric 17th Century Dress

The Origin of the Word Muslin

The name muslin, given to the airy breathable light cotton fabric can be attributed to the city of Mosul in Asiatic Turkey.  Although it was not the original home where muslin first appeared it, never-the-less, got to be known by the name muslin from Mosul because this area produced the finest muslin for centuries.

The women of Mosul, learned the art of weaving muslin, from their mothers who began teaching them from as young as 4 years old. These girls as they grew up developed such sensitive fingers that they could spin thread  thinner than human hair. One of the techniques used to create this delicate thread required the young girls to get up while the dew was still on the grass, because the thread was so delicate it would break if worked in the drier air of the later day.

Muslin’s Original Home

The common consensus is that muslin fabric originated in ancient Bengal. Dhaka in Mughal Bengal was the capital of the muslin worldwide trade during the 17th and 18th centuries. The muslin produced by these artisans was very different from the muslin we know today. The fabric was so airy, light and sheer that it was the preferred choice of the nobility. The kings, princes and noblemen liked to have shifts made of the sheer and airy muslin for their wives to wear in hot weather.

During British colonial rule it has been documented that the brutality of the British rulers toward the muslin weavers in Dhaka was so intense that they would chop off the fingers of the best weavers so that they could no longer pursue  their craft. That brutality along with import policies that favored industrial manufacture of textiles resulted in the disappearance of Jamdani muslin weaving in Dhaka.

Ancient Weaving Looms

Even today wonderful muslin’s of airy lightness continue to be woven on the most crude and primitive looms. These looms are made of two bamboo rollers, a pair of heddles and a shuttle. Each thread in the warp passes through a heddle which separates the warp threads for the passage of the weft.

The warp is the lengthwise thread that is held with tension on the loom. The thread that is inserted over and under the warp threads is called the weft, woof, or filler thread. The warp thread must be the stronger thread. Sometimes the weft thread is the lesser thread as it is the filler thread and need not be as strong but will still produce an excellent fabric.

In recent years the Jamdani saris have once again become popular. Jamdani muslin is one of the most prestigious cotton luxury fabrics produced in the world today. Jam means flower and dani means vase or container, even the name is flattering to women, or to anyone wearing this exquisite muslin.

Muslin Fabric very fine weave

Relaxing in exquisite Muslin

Muslin Terms or Types

There are many terms used to describe the muslin fabric. Following are just a few terms that apply to the various different ways of manufacturing this semi-transparent cotton material.

  1. Cambric – originally used to describe a linen plain weave cloth material made in the French city of Cambrai. Batiste, a French word is a synonym for cambric. Later the weavers started using cotton in the production of this fabric and that is still how it is made today. What distinguishes cambric from other muslins is its glossy finish. Chambray, basically the same fabric was originally made by using colored threads for the warp and white threads for the weft.
  2. Swiss Muslin – This is a semi-transparent muslin fabric famous for its draping ability usually having a raised pattern of dolls or figures. It is called Swiss Muslin because it used to be imported from Switzerland.
  3. Indian Muslin – Made in India by the same families for centuries this is the best, most delicate muslin available. It is opaque, silky and is so light it feels like your wearing a cloud. The British and Scottish weavers were never able to reproduce the delicacy of this original Indian muslin.
  4. Mull Muslin – Another  term for a delicately woven transparent cotton muslin fabric from the Hindu word malmal. It is known for its lightness and ease of cleaning the fabric. It is well suited for fine accessories such as caps, aprons, handkerchiefs, sleeve flounces and fancy children’s clothing.
  5. Jamdani Muslin – The muslin that most people bring to mind when they hear the word muslin. Woven in the Bangali, Dhaka district of Bangladesh it is still the most priced muslin in the world. The traditional art of weaving jamdani has been declared by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.[1][2][3] – Taken from the Jamdani Wikipedia.
  6. Madras Muslin – In the making of madras muslin the threads are cut off at the edge of the design therefore giving the designer the most freedom for his design.  It is one thing to make a design for a piece of cloth but it is quite another to design for a loom. Of all fabrics on the market, the most beautiful designs and colors, for years, were the madras muslin.
  7. Cheesecloth – 100% cotton threads are used to make cheesecloth. The various threads per square inch determine the Grade of the cheesecloth. Cheesecloth is a muslin fabric that is very loosely woven and looks more like a netting than a fabric. When the threads per square inch exceed 80 x 80 there are no longer visible spaces between the threads and the fabric id generally referred to as muslin.




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