Facebook Email Pinterest Twitter X Instagram Tiktok Icon YouTube Icon Headphones Icon Favorite Navigation Search Icon Forum Search Icon Main Search Icon Close Icon Video Play Icon Indicator Arrow Icon Close Icon Hamburger/Search Icon Plus Icon Arrow Down Icon Video Guide Icon Article Guide Icon Modal Close Icon Guide Search Icon

Dhaka Muslin’s Sheer Beauty

Threads #221, Spring 2023

Transparent fabrics have long signaled luxury and status. One such textile was Dhaka (also called Dacca) muslin, an exceptionally fine, woven cotton material made in Bangladesh. Described as early as the third century CE, Dhaka muslin came to prominence during the Mughal Empire, especially in the 16th through 18th centuries. Portrait miniatures from the era frequently show emperors, their wives, and other courtiers wearing garments made of ultrasheer fabrics. Men traditionally wore sheer jamas, wrap-front coats with full skirts, closed with a waist sash. Women often wore tissue-thin peshwaz, gowns with a fitted bodice and full skirt.

The cotton plant used to make the diaphanous Dhaka muslin, known as Phuti karpas, was grown and processed in the Ganges Delta. Its short staple fibers were difficult to work with, but when handled by an expert, they could be spun into threads so fine as to be nearly invisible, according to 17th-century French traveler and writer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. The threads, in turn, were woven into fabric that was nearly transparent, and had a thread count of 800 to 1,800 threads in the warp. Few examples of the delicate fabric are extant.

The muslin became hugely popular in Europe and Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the early 20th century, the rare cotton plant was extinct, and the Dhaka weaving tradition was destroyed. Both were victims of British rule and the industrial revolution, which required easily cultivated and processed fiber to meet commercial demand.

painting of Empress Nur Jahan, holding a portrait of Emperor Jahangir, circa 1627, by Bishandas
Empress Nur Jahan, holding a portrait of Emperor Jahangir, circa 1627, by Bishandas. Both figures wear nearly transparent bodices; the empress’s more opaque-looking skirt may represent several layers of muslin. Photo: courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art; (bottom) courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Today, Bangladeshi activist Saiful Islam seeks to resurrect the plant and the artisanal skills needed to spin and weave fine muslin. His project, Bengal Muslin (BengalMuslin.com), has cultivated cotton plants found in the wild that appear to be a relative of the original Phuti karpas, and he has been working with weavers to refine their techniques to handle the unfamiliar fiber.  The artisans have learned to weave much finer muslin than anyone in their generation. The project continues its efforts to bring this gossamer fabric back to life, to honor its Bangladeshi history and create a sustainable future for the weavers.

From Threads #221


Threads Insider

Get instant access to hundreds of videos, tutorials, projects, and more.

Start Your Free Trial

Already an Insider? Log in

Log in or create an account to post a comment.

More From Threads

Discussion Forum

Recent Posts and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |

Threads Insider Exclusives

View All
View All