Before the conquest of the Indian peninsular by the British Empire in the 18th Century, Dhaka in what is now known as Bangladesh was famous around the known world for its incredibly fine muslin. Fabled for turning transparent when wet, sudden rain showers were something to watch out for when wearing this designer and sought-after fabric. Mismanagement and failure to cultivate local traditions meant that the British colonists allowed the Dhaka muslin trade to fall into disrepair and eventually stop altogether. The specific cotton plant needed to spin the thread was feared extinct, and the spinning wheels required especially nimble fingers. Machinery just didn't have the ability to manufacture such delicate cloth.
Once worn by Marie Antoinette, as shown in various paintings of the French Queen, and famously worn by Jane Austen, a few of the historical garments had survived in collections. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a large collection of clothing and were able to isolate known samples of the famous and rare Dhaka muslin. A genetic sequencing gave botanists the identification they needed to rediscover any surviving strains of this extremely rare and forgotten cotton plant.
It was time to go into the field and search for the illusive flower. Cotton plants grow in several locations however to achieve the correct fabric, absolute precision is required in growing conditions and genetic makeup. Known for historically growing in and around Dhaka, the Bangladeshi river delta provides just the right climate and conditions for the flower to flourish. Various cotton plants were tested for a match, and eventually one was found.
The Phuti Carpus cotton plant was rediscovered growing North of Dhaka by Monzur Hossain, chief botanist in the Dhaka muslin revival project. After comparing the genetics of the fabric and the plant, it was confirmed that this breed of cotton was indeed the lost flower. It has since been cultivated in large scale grows so that the material can once again be put to good use.
Finding people with the skills and willingness to learn to create the hand-spun fabric is a challenge. Although Bangladesh is still famous for its textiles, the majority of work is done with machines that do not require spinning knowledge. Hand pulled looms and manual spinning wheels combined with the world's finest cotton makes a job only certain people can do. A gentle touch and a keen eye for detail plus a lot of patience will undoubtedly make a successful muslin maker.
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From the author of Alternative Fruit
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