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DHAKA: Dhaka muslin, a fabric so light and fine that poets have described it as “woven air”, is set to be reborn in Bangladesh after years of research to revive long-lost production techniques .
The delicate fabric takes its name from the city of Mosul, now in Iraq, where it was first made in the Middle Ages.
The cloth became popular in the Indian subcontinent under Mughal rulers, and from the 17th century production was centered in Dhaka, where weavers developed the cloth to its finest form, soon exporting it to the around the world.
Dhaka muslin has dominated the world market for 200 years. International royalty were among those who favored the fabric until it died out in the early 20th century, being phased out by machine-made alternatives and high import tariffs in Europe.
The complex technique required to make the fine hand-woven fabric, which ranges in thread count from several hundred to over 1,000, as well as the knowledge of the types of cotton suitable for production, disappeared with a generation of weavers who gave up the craft.
Once the pride of the region, Dhaka muslin was forgotten for decades. Five years ago, however, researchers from the Bangladesh Handloom Board set out to revive the fabric. But it was not an easy task.
“We didn’t have authentic samples on hand,” Mohammad Ayub Ali, who leads the project, told Arab News.
“But we haven’t given up. We all had a firm resolve in mind to restore the secret.
Ali’s team traveled to India, Egypt and the UK to find original samples of the historic fabric, and ultimately settled on a version found at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
To determine the species of cotton used by the ancient weavers of Dhaka, researchers turned to “Species Plantarum”, the groundbreaking book published by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753, which lists all known plant species at the time. .
The plant was thought to be Phuti carpus, which researchers feared was now extinct.
“We prepared a morphological sketch of Phuti carpus and searched across the country to find if there was still a sample of this cotton,” Ali said. “Thirty-nine species of cotton samples were collected during this process.”
DNA tests, which matched samples with muslin thread from the London museum, revealed that a plant, collected from the Kapasia area of Gazipur district, north of Dhaka, was almost 100% compatible.
To save it from extinction, the plant is now grown on experimental farms.
Professor Mohammad Monzur Hossain, a botanist from Rajshahi University who led the research on Phuti carpus, said the plant has characteristics not found in other species.
“The fiber of this cotton has a high tensile strength compared to other cottons. And these fibers are short, which is convenient for hand spinning,” he told Arab News. “The muslin produced from Phuti carpus was so thin and transparent that it was called ‘air woven’.”
The metaphor of “woven air” comes from classical Persian poetry – just like “flowing water”, “evening dew” and other terms. However, to bring these descriptions to life, proper skills and techniques were also essential.
The weavers involved in the project were trained for more than a year in the use of traditional wooden spinning wheels and hand looms to produce fabrics with several times the thread count of what they were used to.
Higher thread count – the number of interlocking threads per square inch – makes materials softer and tends to wear better over time. The goal was 500, but initially artisans couldn’t exceed 80.
Mohammad Rubel Mia learned the craft as a child over two decades ago and was used to weaving delicate sarees with a thread count of around 100, but it took him some time to learn the muslin technique .
“At first it was not easy to deal with this almost microscopic yarn,” he said. “We failed again and again.”
For Mohsena Akter, another worker at the Bangladesh Handloom Board’s Dhakai Muslin Project in Narayanganj, southwest of Dhaka, it’s the hardest job of her life.
The fabric is so fine that the fingers weaving it must always be gentle.
“If our fingers dry out or get hard, we can’t process the delicate muslin threads,” she said. “There is no time to lose focus, even for a split second, and that requires the highest level of perseverance.”
Fifteen spinners work for the Dhakai Chiffon Project. It takes them 150 days to produce enough yarn for a single piece of chiffon saree.
As they prepare to enter the market, project manager Ali said that a chiffon saree will cost between $7,000 and $17,000 considering the labor required to make it.
Hopes are high that the reborn historic fabric will be welcomed by the global fashion industry after an absence of nearly 100 years.
“I think it will also help make Bangladesh the best fabric producing country,” Ali said. “We plan to participate in different fairs around the world.”