Indian Muslin industry and its decline in the 17th and 18th centuries

Indian fabrics  had long been renowned both for their fine quality and exquisite craftsmanship. Calico originated from Calicut, Kerala was popular among Europeans  after the early part of 1500s. In the 16th and 17th centuries, India had a flourishing business on the international market, particularly in Muslin..
Muslin fabric of bengal

Among the cotton garments Muslin was much sought after across Europe. It is primarily cotton fabric of plain wave with a wide range of weights from delicate sheers to coarse sheeting. Though it derives its name from  the city of Mosul, Iraq, where it was first made, the undivided Bengal region  of the indian subcontinent was the main exporter. Because   they were familiar traditional technique to make  uncommonly delicate, very thin handspun/ handwoven yarn. Throughout 17th and 18th century  Muslin  was exported to Europe and in particular to England in large quantities. Thanks to France  who made it popular across  Europe as the quality was exceptionally good and no doubt,  it was the favorite of women  because Muslin could be fit in  with any design that would improve the look.  Some varieties of muslin were so thin that they could even pass through the hole of  a lady finger-ring. It is reported that it is so feather thin a length of 300ft could pass through the centre of a ring; a piece of 60ft   can be stuffed into a pocket.  People like the French queen Marie Antoinette, the French empress Jos├ęphine Bonaparte, Jane Austen  and a host of upper class fashionable women patronized muslin which was a bit more than translucent. So muslin was an important item of luxury in Europe. n 1835, Edwards Bainz wrote: “Over the ages, India textile industry has shown unparalleled workmanship and artistry and successfully maintained supreme quality standards. Certain qualities of the pure Muslin were so fine, as though they were crafted by some super human forces, say elves or butterflies.”

Weaving of Muslin.

 Above image: Within its fine folds Master weaver Al-Amin weaving age-old motifs on a loom in Bangladesh.................... 

It was totally labor intensive  enterprise and  the production requires a large number of artesans. You need  dexterous hands to spin the shimmering silvery, cotton fibre into extremely fine yarn. The extra thin was due to a rare cotton that only grew along the banks of the holy Meghna river, Bangladesh. 

It was a wonder fabric, one of the greatest treasures of that period  and international traveler Marco Polo likened to ‘white gold’, or seen anything close to the delicate and ultra-thin folds of Bengal muslin kameezes that were packed in snuff boxes, and gifted to Madame de Pompadour.  It is said to be as light and soft as the wind.   No doubt, the Dhaka Muslim became scandalous dress material in late 18th-Century Europe. A large section of elite class  appearing publicly in more-than-translucent Muslin fabric barring everything took the country by storm.  If Playboy magazine were there at that point of time, definitely they would have had a ball choosing some for display in the centerfold. It is likely the magazine would have been sued for trespassing on their modesty!! The muslin cloth was so thin the elite ladies looked as if they were publically nude (you may say Eave's dress). A  booming new fashion involving muslin led to an international scandal. An entire social class was accused of appearing in public naked.

Muslin fabric,

Unable to compete with the local muslin industry in Bengal,  East India  company, a mercantile trading company with military muscle resorted to certain intimidating methods to discourage the weavers who had been in this business for decades. The workers were unmoved bit the threats  and kept continuing their profession.  Finally, it is widely alleged and recorded that ESI goons went into certain villages, destroyed their looms, rounded up the weavers like cattle in a western ranch by cowpokes and chopped off  their thumbs so that they would never work again.   Some historians said  this kind of events was quite misleading. However William Bolts, a merchant in his book “Considerations on India Affairs” recorded instances of extreme brutality against silk weavers including cutting off their fingers.'' It is a debatable matter. The cotton export declined because of competition and the British  made cheap machine garments and forced Indian to pay higher export duties.

"The trade was built up and destroyed by the British East India Company," says according to  Sonia Ashmore, a design historian.

 Because of continuous threats from the English company  quality of work, finesse and volume of production saw drastic changes and the cottage industries in Bengal declined to a trickle. The Administration under the British Crown after 1858 followed similar policy in a subtle manner and the muslin industries never got back to their old glory. 

Being inexpensive, Muslin,  unbleached cotton fabric available in different weights, is often used as a backing or lining for quilts of various sizes. Apart Muslin is used as a filter in a variety of ways in   brewery, food industries, drug manufacturing and even in surgery by doctors.