The Historic Crescendo of Indian Cotton Muslin in the West (1770-1820)

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Muslin fabric was the textile of emperors.  While the Indian continent historically boasts many different varieties of textiles—from calico to ikat— it was the remarkably translucent, wonderfully white characteristics of cotton muslin that the Indian Mughal court revered. When The British East India Company received a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I of England, in 1600, a long history of trade between Europe and India began. Cotton textiles were among the most popularly imported items from the exotic, far-reaches of India, and chief among these cotton textiles was muslin. During the eighteenth-century, the production of the cloth had reached its zenith in popularity amongst Europeans, and up until the close of that century, the quality of the fabric was far-superior to anything that Europe could produce.

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            In a global sense, India had been ahead of the cotton-based textiles game for a couple millennia. Cotton had existed as a domesticated and cultivated plant on the Indian continent for thousands of years, proof of which can be found in the domesticated cotton fibers and seeds which have been found in excavation sites in Baluchistan, dating from around 6,000 BC.  By the time European companies started trading with India in the seventeenth-century, the spinners and weavers of India had the advantage of working with cotton for a long period of time.

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            The cotton muslin which pre-dates the twentieth-century is much different in appearance and quality than what is modernly termed as muslin. The muslin fabrics produced in India during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century could be defined as a plain-weave, cotton cloth with a translucent appearance. Because of its sheer and airy characteristics, it was originally named after the French word for mousse: mousseline. Later, it was adapted into the English language, and mousseline became muslin. Because the fabric was so diaphanous and sheer, it acquired other monikers which denoted the degree of the fabric’s delicacy. “Woven-wind” and “evening dew” were just a few names which were attributed to Indian cotton muslin. “In the 1760s the Dutch traveler Stavorinus wrote that ‘Bengal muslins were made so fine that a piece twenty yards in length or even longer could be put into a common pocket ‘tobacco box’”

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The delicacy of the cotton thread used to construct muslin textiles and the difficulty of weaving muslin fabric allowed for India to corner-the-market on fine muslin, so to speak. The art of making a fabric which could be described to be as dainty as “spider web” required specialized skill and unique conditions. It was Dacca India which was known, during the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, for making the most exquisite and translucent muslin fabric. But how did a rural region which was made up of small villages produce a fabric which was unparalleled by modern western countries? Fortunately, for the western world, the answer has been preserved in a written record by the medical officer, James Taylor, who lived in Dacca India between the years 1828 and 1846. Although his report post-dates the period which has been highlighted in this paper, the slow-moving technology changes in rural India make it highly plausible that the techniques described in Taylor’s report apply to the manufacture of the fabric in the eighteenth-century.

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The process for making delicate muslin begins with the cotton plant itself. In the flood-planes along the Brahmaputra River, the land is seasonally covered with a fine silt, making the soil fertile. The cotton which grows in the silty soil of the region has been cultivated to produce a boll with exceptionally long and thin fibers.  Such choice cotton bolls were cleaned in an ancient technique, where women used the small teeth attached to the jawbone of the boalee fish to comb out the seeds. To remove the dirt and knots from the processed boll, the cotton fibers were laid out into a pile. The next step to the process was quite simple, but clever. Workmen struck a large stringed bow with a wooden mallet, and set the bow against the pile of cotton, where the vibrations of the bow shook the dirt from the cotton, while simultaneously fluffing the fibers. Now, the cotton was ready for spinning.

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The spinning process could not be left to just any hand. Because of their nimble young fingers and acute eye-sight, women under thirty years of age were chosen to spin the cotton yarn.  The relentless humidity of Dacca eased the stress on the fibers, making it more pliable for spinning and weaving. William Ward observed in 1818, “Women of all castes prepare the cotton thread for the weaver, spinning the thread on a piece of ware, on a very thin rod of iron with a ball of clay on one end, this they turn round with the left hand, and supply the cotton with the right.”

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The weaving portion of muslin cloth production was customarily performed by men. The work of weaving required great restraint and dexterity to work with cotton yarns which were so fine. The weaving work was executed on a simple loom, where the warp yarns were strengthened through a process of soaking the yarns in rice paste. After the cloth was woven, the starchy rice paste was washed out of the fabric in a running stream, and laid out in a field to bleach in the sun. The resulting fabric appeared sheer and filmy, and as it was stretched on the ground to dry and bleach, it resembled spider webs, or in the hazy morning sun, dew.

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Before the nineteenth-century, Indian cotton textile production was ordinarily carried-out in villages, and was performed at the house-hold level, where every member of the family was involved in the production process. Children would clean and card the cotton and assist the weaver, women would spin the cotton, and men would weave the fabric. Each district specialized in one textile—Dacca specializing in fine muslin. These localized centers for production were called aurangs. The cleaning, spinning and weaving processes were further specialized and determined by caste and occupational factors. In a sense, the divided labor system of the aurangs resembles an assembly line in a modern factory, where each separate “part” or step in the production was allotted to one person or group who specialized in just one task. Such aurangs in Dacca fell under the patronage of the Mughal Court, who controlled the production over the best weavers. While the Mughal Court allowed muslin to be sold to Europeans, the finest muslin was reserved for the Court. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth-century, after the British conquest of India, that the British took control over the aurangs, and, in turn, gained access to the highest-quality muslin fabrics.

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You may be wondering why it was so important for the European trading companies to get their hands on fine muslin woven in Dacca. The answer has a lot to do with the changes in western philosophy, aesthetics and fashions, and the increased demand for textiles which were suited to these new ideals. During the second half of the eighteenth-century, Neoclassicism had taken a hold of western Europe. The architecture and fashion of the time had a dominant Greco-Roman appeal, spawned by the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii in 1748.  The fashion for resembling Greek marble sculpture encouraged the wearing of beautiful white fabrics in the form of the fichu, shawl and dress. It was Indian cotton muslin which was the best-suited to these Greek-goddess-inspired fashions, with its elegant, soft drape and gossamer sheerness.

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By the mid 1780s, the robe en chemise became popular, after the fashion forward Queen Marie Antoinette was immortalized in a portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Le Brun, (painted in 1783), wearing the underwear-like garment. Although the robe en chemise’s debut amongst privileged circles was shocking, it was quickly embraced by the fashionable elite. Soon, European royalty, like the Prussian princesses Friederike and Luise, and aristocrats, like Juliette de Recamier, were wearing simple white dresses made of muslin fabric.

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During the first two decades of the nineteenth-century, the empire-waisted muslin dress was the reigning fashion, and can be seen being modeled in early nineteenth-century fashion-plates, and portraits of royalty and aristocrats.  Empress Josephine de Beauharnais—Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife— cemented the look in popular fashion, reflecting her husband’s politically fashioned, Neoclassical imperial style through the white empire dress. Josephine and her fashionable friends were known to splash water on the filmy muslin material of their gowns, causing the fabric to cling to their figures, while simultaneously becoming even more transparent. Not only was the wearing of muslin fabric a political statement, but it was a seductive act, as well. The prevailing cultural climate consisting of Greco-Roman inspired Neoclassicism, “Anglomania-style,” which elevated simple country wear to high fashion, and the idea of the return-to-nature, supported by such philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, coupled with the inherent alluring qualities of the fabric all ensured the ready adaption of white dresses and accessories made from muslin into popular fashion.

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Aside from the fabric’s visual appeal, muslin possessed practical qualities, as well. Not only were cotton textiles more cost-effective than textiles like silk and wool, but cotton fabric was color-fast. This meant that clothing and bedding made of cotton fabric could be dyed a color, or feature dyed popular motifs and designs, and withstand exposure to sunlight and washing. In the case of cotton muslin, it was a good choice for undergarments because the fabric could easily be washed. Because both outer-garments and undergarments made of cotton were washable, new concepts of cleanliness emerged in nineteenth-century European culture. Cotton muslin was a marvel of both beauty and hygiene.

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Although Europe tried to emulate the cotton muslin fabric, they were, at first, only able to produce cruder, lower-grade muslin fabrics. It is for this reason that Indian muslin was highly sought after by European traders.  Especially during the mid-to-late eighteenth-century, the European demand for Indian cotton muslin reached its peak. In the decade between 1760 and 1770 alone, it is estimated that European companies imported around 1,400,000 pieces of Indian cotton fabrics. The exceptionally sheer and delicate muslin fabric known as jamdani was the variety which was most difficult for Europeans to replicate. Jamdani is an-ultra-fine muslin fabric which has been embellished with cotton yarns, introduced as weft threads during the weaving process, forming a white-on-white pattern. In the caste-conscious culture of India, it was the Muslim men who wove jamdani muslin, and the Hindu men who wove plain muslin.

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As fine and beautiful as the hand-woven Indian cotton muslin was, the cottage industry system which ruled the production of the fabric in Dacca could not compete with the developing machinery emerging out of England at the close of the eighteenth-century. In 1779, the spinning mule was invented by Samuel Crompton, which revolutionized yarn making. The spinning mule could generate yarn that was both smooth and fine, and could be produced at a much faster rate than by hand. By 1800, English cotton mills featured steam-powered spinning mules and steam-powered looms which out-classed and out-produced weaving centers in Dacca, India. By the dawn of the nineteenth-century, the age of the machine and the Industrial Revolution had come into its own. While the Industrial Revolution began in England around 1780, it was in the year 1800 that a steady advance in efficiency and technology occurred. Machines and technology that produced textiles made up 43% of productivity advancements, which points to the importance of textiles as both utility, luxury and commodity.

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 Truly, it was the sound of the steam engine’s pistons, cogs and wheels that signaled the end of the millennia-old muslin weaving tradition in Dacca, India. Around 1790, machines in England were producing most of the cotton textiles that were sought after in the commercial market, which spelled a declining demand for the Indian made muslin. While the exotic beauty and functionality of Indian cotton muslin had captivated the desire and imaginations of western Europe, beginning in the seventeenth-century, the ethereal hand-woven fabric was inevitably left behind in the annals of history as time marched forward, into the age of machines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

 

Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015.

 

 

Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014.

 

 

Bhatnager, Parul. “Sari-Tangil and Jamdani.” www.academia.edu/373055/sari-tangil_and_jamdani.

 

 

Clark, Gregory. “The Long March of History: Farm Wages, Population and Economic Gowth, England 1209-1869.” Economic History Review. February, 2009.

 

 

Crill, Rosemary. Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia. Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016.

cpd.org.bd/private-public-and-civil-society-partnership-is-critical-for-revival-of-muslin/

 

 

Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012.

 

 

Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999.

 

 

Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

 

 

Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015.

 

 

McDowall, Carolyn. “The Fabric of India—V&A London, Showcases Indian Textiles.” The Culture Concept Circle. V&A, London, 2015.

 

 

Riello, Giorgio. “The Making of a Global Commodity: Indian Cottons and European Trade, 1450-1850.” The Proceedings of the First Congress of the Asian Association of World Historians. U.K.: University of Warwick Press, 2010.

 

 

Riello, Giorgio. “When Cotton was Banned: Indian Cotton Textiles in Early Modern England.” Fifteen Eighty Four. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

 

 

Sarkar, Suborna. “Inventive Employ of Jamdani: An Idiosyncratic Cram and Analysis.” European Journal of Business and Management, Vol.8, No.12, 2016.

 

Ward, W. A View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos, Vol.1. Serempore: Mission Press, 1818.

[1] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. cpd.org.bd/private-public-and-civil-society-partnership-is-critical-for-revival-of-muslin/. 2.

[2] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966. 1.

[3] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. cpd.org.bd/private-public-and-civil-society-partnership-is-critical-for-revival-of-muslin/. 2.

 

[4] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[5] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 119.

[6] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[7] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 12.

[11] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[12] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[13] Ward, W. A View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos, Vol.1. Serempore: Mission Press, 1818. 93.

[14] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[15] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR. Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 12.

[16] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 126.

[17] Bhatnager, Parul. “Sari-Tangil and Jamdani.” www.academia.edu/373055/sari-tangil_and_jamdani.

[18] Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012. 3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015.

[21] McDowall, Carolyn. “The Fabric of India—V&A London, Showcases Indian Textiles.” The Culture Concept Circle. V&A, London, 2015.

[22] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[23] Riello, Giorgio. “The Making of a Global Commodity: Indian Cottons and European Trade, 1450-1850.” The Proceedings of the First Congress of the Asian Association of World Historians. U.K.: University of Warwick Press, 2010. 11.

[24] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 124.

[25] Sarkar, Suborna. “Inventive Employ of Jamdani: An Idiosyncratic Cram and Analysis.” European Journal of Business and Management, Vol.8, No.12, 2016.

[26] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. cpd.org.bd/private-public-and-civil-society-partnership-is-critical-for-revival-of-muslin/. 2.

[27] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 13.

[28] Clark, Gregory. “The Long March of History: Farm Wages, Population and Economic Gowth, England 1209-1869.” Economic History Review. February, 2009. 122.

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