Muslin (// or //), also mousseline or Malmal, is a cotton fabric of plain weave. It is made in a wide range of weights from delicate sheers to coarse sheeting. Muslins were imported into Europe from the Bengal region, in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, during much of the 17th and 18th centuries and were later manufactured in Scotland and England. While English-speakers call it muslin because Europeans believed it originated in the Iraqi city of Mosul, its origins are now thought to have been farther east — in particular Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh. Dhaka’s jamdani muslin, with its distinctive patterns woven in layer by layer, was one of the Mughal Empire’s most prestigious and lucrative exports. Early muslin was handwoven of uncommonly delicate handspun yarn.
In 2013, the traditional art of weaving Jamdani muslin in Bangladesh was included in the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Etymology and history
Muslin (AmE: Muslin gauze) from French mousseline, from Italian mussolina, from Mussolo ‘Mosul’ (Mosul, Iraq, where European traders are said to have first encountered the cloth). Although this view has the fabric named after the city where Europeans first encountered it (Mosul), the fabric is believed to have originated in Dhaka, the capital of present-day Bangladesh.
In the prehistoric period, a mother goddess figurine from Indus Valley Civilisation appears to be draped in a very thin tight tunic top compared to her skirt which exposes her bosoms which maybe a cloth-like muslin. Muslin is depicted frequently in terracotta figurines as early as 2nd century BCE in Chandraketugarh, an archaeological site in modern-day West Bengal, India. In the fifth century Sigiriya painting depicts royal females drapped in muslin. In the 9th century, an Arab merchant named Sulaiman made note of the material's origin in Bengal (known as Ruhmi in Arabic). Bengali muslin was traded throughout the Muslim world, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. In many Islamic regions, such as in Central Asia, the cloth was named Daka, after the city of Dhaka.
During the Roman period, muslin was the foremost export of Masulipatam, in Andhra Pradesh, India. Bengali khadi muslin was so prized by well-dressed ladies of Rome that according to Roman legend, "an ounce of muslin used to sell in Rome for an ounce of gold".
In 1298 CE, Marco Polo described the cloth in his book The Travels. He said it was made in Mosul, Iraq. The 16th-century English traveler Ralph Fitch lauded the muslin he saw in Sonargaon. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Mughal Bengal emerged as the foremost muslin exporter in the world, with Mughal Dhaka as capital of the worldwide muslin trade. It became highly popular in 18th-century France and eventually spread across much of the Western world.
Under British rule, the British East India company could not compete with local muslin with their own export of cloth to the Indian subcontinent. The colonial government favored imports of British textiles. Colonial authorities attempted to suppress the local weaving culture. Muslin production greatly declined and the knowledge of weaving was nearly eradicated. It is alleged that in some instances the weavers were rounded up and their thumbs chopped off, although this has been refuted as an alleged misreading of a report from 1772. The Bengali muslin industry was suppressed by various colonial policies. As a result, the quality of muslin suffered and the finesse of the cloth was lost.
There have been various attempts at reviving the muslin industry in modern Bangladesh. In the present day, many different types of muslins are produced in many different places, including Dhaka.
The word muslin is also used colloquially. In the United Kingdom, many sheer cotton fabrics are called muslin, while in the United States, muslin sometimes refers to a firm cloth for everyday use, which in the UK and Australia is known as calico.
Dress-making and sewing
When sewing clothing, a dressmaker may test the fit of a garment, using an inexpensive muslin fabric before cutting pieces from expensive fabric, thereby avoiding potential costly mistakes. This garment is often called a "muslin," and the process is called "making a muslin." In this context, "muslin" has become the generic term for a test or fitting garment, regardless of what it is made from.
Muslin is also often used as a backing or lining for quilts, and thus can often be found in wide widths in the quilting sections of fabric stores.
Muslin is used as a French polishing pad.
Muslin can be used as a filter:
- In a funnel when decanting fine wine or port to prevent sediment from entering the decanter
- To separate liquid from mush (for example, to make apple juice: wash, chop, boil, mash, then filter by pouring the mush into a muslin bag suspended over a jug)
- To retain a liquidy solid (for example, in home cheese-making, when the milk has curdled to a gel, pour into a muslin bag and squash between two saucers (upside down under a brick) to squeeze out the liquid whey from the cheese curd)
Muslin is the fabric wrapped around the items in barmbrack, a fruitcake traditionally eaten at Halloween in Ireland.
Muslin is used when making traditional Fijian Kava as a filter.
Beekeepers use muslin to filter melted beeswax to clean it of particles and debris.
Theater and photography
Muslin is often the cloth of choice for theater sets. It is used to mask the background of sets and to establish the mood or feel of different scenes. It receives paint well and, if treated properly, can be made translucent.
It also holds dyes well. It is often used to create nighttime scenes because when dyed, it often gets a wavy look with the color varying slightly, such that it resembles a night sky. Muslin shrinks after it is painted or sprayed with water, which is desirable in some common techniques such as soft-covered flats.
In video production as well, muslin is used as a cheap greenscreen or bluescreen, either pre-colored or painted with latex paint (diluted with water). It is commonly used as a background for the chroma key technique.
Muslin is the most common backdrop material used by photographers for formal portrait backgrounds. These backdrops are usually painted, most often with an abstract mottled pattern.
In the early days of silent film-making, and up until the late 1910s, movie studios did not have the elaborate lights needed to illuminate indoor sets, so most interior scenes were sets built outdoors with large pieces of muslin hanging overhead to diffuse sunlight.
Surgeons use muslin gauze in cerebrovascular neurosurgery to wrap around aneurysms or intracranial vessels at risk for bleeding. The thought is that the gauze reinforces the artery and helps prevent rupture. It is often used for aneurysms that, due to their size or shape, cannot be microsurgically clipped or coiled.
The Wright Brothers, in search of a light and strong covering for their gliders and the 1903 Wright Flyer (the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft), selected Pride of the West muslin as a covering for wings and control surfaces. A large piece of the fabric used on the original Wright Flyer (1903) was passed down to Wright descendants. The fabric was made available to The Wright Experience(reproduction of the Wright gliders and Flyer and reenactment of the first flight on its 100th anniversary) for examination as it was no longer commercially available a century after its use by the Wrights. To create an authentic modern reproduction of the original fabric, three different companies were needed which produced the thread, the weaving, and the finishing).
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- muslin (noun), Webster's Unabridged Dictionary
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