The British Empire Library


by Sonia Ashmore

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This is a delightful book on many levels. Not only is it beautifully illustrated, but the text gives a succinct and fascinating review of the rise and fall of muslin, a fabric now almost unknown in the west. Long before Europeans arrived in the Indian subcontinent, muslin was being exported to many parts of the ancient and medieval world. It went west, to the Roman Empire, and later to the Ottoman Empire, where the Turkish word for turban 'tülbent' was the name for muslin. It went east to Assam, Burma and Indonesia. Fine muslin was so prized that it was a prerogative of the Mughal emperors, and was presented as part of the annual tribute from the rulers of medieval Bengal, a custom continued for some years by the British governors when they took over revenue collecting in 1765. More than 500 lengths of the delicate fabric were sent yearly to the emperor in Delhi, and when one learns that it could take two men between one month and six months to produce a single piece, the relationship between provincial workers, merchants and the capital becomes clearer.

What made Bengal, and the area around Dacca, so suitable for growing gossypium herbaceum, the plant from which muslin is made , was the climate and the earth. Areas around the Brahmaputra river where the soil was rich in deposits of sand and saline particles produced particularly good cotton. It was also, of course, the skill of the Bengali spinners and weavers who produced muslins so fine that they were named ' running water' and 'evening dew '. The semi-transparent nature of the cloth made it very attractive to generations of purchasers. When starched with rice-paste, muslin skirts stood stiffly out over the striped pyjamas of Mughal emperors, as depicted in miniature paintings. When dampened, the folds of eighteenth century muslin dresses would cling seductively to the bodies of its fair wearers.

The book explores spinning and weaving techniques. The former had to be done in the early morning or late afternoon, while the air was damp, so that the cotton filaments would stretch, and not snap. Weaving was carried out in the oddly-named 'pit-looms' where a hole was dug outside the bungalow to accommodate the weavers' legs so they could work a kind of treadle with their feet. Production also involved a number of ancillary workers, including cloth-bleachers, washermen, darners and ironers (known today as 'presswallahs '). Apart from information on production, it is useful to learn of the extent to which both Indian and British economies depended, at different times, on the import and export of muslin.

The English East India Company simply couldn't get enough of it at first, and pieces were sold for huge sums in the west. Even as late as 1811, well over a century after imports to Britain began, Jane Austen admitted to her sister that she had paid seven shillings a yard for some 'check'd muslin'. Naturally its very popularity invited imitation. The Industrial Revolution had produced, among other things, Samuel Crompton's 'spinning mule' the mechanised machine that could produce large amounts of standard fine fabric, at far lower cost than that of imported cloth. At the same time, Indian craftsmen lost the patronage of the Mughal court, as the status and wealth of the emperors was curtailed by the British.

But muslin is a versatile fabric, and as imports from Bengal declined, exports from the north of England, and particularly Scotland, increased. Paisley became famous for its shawls, often patterned with Indian designs, but its looms also produced delicate patterned muslin too. Spinning and weaving was a cottage industry, with over 30,000 hand looms in the Glasgow area by the 1820s. Some work was even out- sourced to Ireland, because the weavers there were paid less. Scottish trading companies like John Lean & Son, which was founded as a Lanark drapers, were exporting tens of thousands of pounds worth of muslin to India by the 1870s. European countries including France, were not slow to follow and Crompton's machine was pirated shortly after its invention. In spite of Marie Antoinette 's fondness for muslin, it did not fall out of favour after the Revolution, and in fact was taken up enthusiastically by 'hyper-fashionable young men and women who danced wildly in revealing garments of the flimsiest silk and muslin'. It was the way muslin could be embellished that made it so popular for so long. Patterns could be woven into it, or embroidered on to it, with drawn thread-work, coloured thread and beaten gold wire. One extraordinary piece in the Victoria & Albert Museum (which published this book), is decorated with the iridescent wings of green beetles.

Sadly, the last fashion moment for muslin in the west was the cheesecloth revival of the 1970s. But the author finishes on a positive note. Successful attempts to revive the weaving industry in West Bengal are leading to a renewed interest in the craft. Even if we no longer dress ourselves in muslin, it does make very good curtains. Sir John Soane's family used turmeric to dye their muslin curtains for the famous yellow room in Lincoln's Inn Fields. This is a book of engrossing interest, beautifully presented, and must surely lead to an exhibition of the V&A's rich hoard of fabrics.

British Empire Book
Sonia Ashmore
V&A Publishing
978185177 7143.
Review Originally Published
Spring 2013 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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