Bangladeshis retell their history through the revival of this ancient fabric

If you’re at all a member of the beauty community or the parent of a newborn, chances are that you’re very familiar with a muslin cloth — a cotton fabric that serves all sorts of purposes and is softer than the traditional terrycloth towel.

The history of muslin traces back to the 16th and 17th centuries, where it was traded throughout the Middle East and Europe. Original muslin was produced from a specific cotton plant called Phuti Karpas. The plant grew along the banks of the Brahmaputra river, which flows through Tibet, India and Bangladesh.

Muslin, during this time, was a legendary and very sought-after fabric that, at times, was worth more than its weight in gold.

But at the turn of the 20th century, the muslin industry was destroyed by exploitative economic regulations. Colonial rulers infiltrating Bangladesh at the time essentially erased the industry and groups like the East India Trading Company made the fabric obsolete with its machine-made fabrics.

Today, there are Bangladeshis like author Saiful Islam, who are fighting to restore the proper history of muslin cloth.

“Muslin sits in our history. It occupies a place where we have a positive difference — where we have a sense of pride; we have a sense of identity,” Islam told In The Know. “You are literally creating something which is so special that even with the skill all around the subcontinent, this couldn’t be replicated.”

Islam is the CEO of a group called Drik, an internationally reputed multimedia organization based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The project’s goal is to retell the muslin origin story from the viewpoint of the people who created it and to inspire the revival of “new-age” muslin.

While Phuti Karpas is believed to be extinct now, Islam is searching for the plant’s closest living relative to revitalize the muslin industry in Bangladesh. After traveling the Meghna river, he found a plant that was able to produce a fine quality cotton thread that was super similar to muslin.

Why is Islam going to all the trouble to do this? It’s a part of his nation’s history. Now with this new version of muslin, weavers in places like Dhaka can create shawls and saris using the same traditional techniques that were employed hundreds of years ago.

“You have got all this technology, and all of it can be used, you know, to bring so many things back,” Islam explained. “Hopefully, we can apply such resurrection to lost languages to lost species, to lost, you know, heritage.”

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