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Bangladeshi Woven Air

Once worn by Mughal emperors and Europe's aristocracy, the world's most prescious fabric was lost to history. But is now being revived.

Described in texts thousands of years ago, Dhaka muslin is an ultra fine, ultra soft fabric made from a shabby-looking cotton that grows along the banks of the holy Meghna River in Bangladesh. The cotton, known locally as phuti karpas, was very delicate, snapped and frayed easily, and could only be morphed into a luxury fabric under conditions of extreme humidity by highly skilled weavers.

Its principal properties were its lightness and transparency. It was termed “woven air” by the Mughal. However the subjugation of local master weavers who passed the secret of creating this fabric to the British East India Company resulted in many of the techniques being lost - even to this day the scraggly cotton, no longer valued, receded into the mists of time.

One man, however, is endeavouring to re-establish the legendary Dhaka muslin as the world’s top textile. Saiful Islam runs Bengal Muslin, a heritage crafting enterprise seeking to adapt the ancient techniques and restore the phuki karpas cotton plant.

However, none of this would be possible if phuki karpas couldn't be found, and Islam had to sequence its DNA from a single pressed specimen from the 19th century carefully stored at England's Royal Botanic Gardens. Armed with this, he sailed up and down the Meghna River, snapping up anything that looked like the pressed picture, and eventually managed to find an acestor - a plant that had about three-quarters of the same genetic code.

Cultivating it on an island in the middle of the river, Islam managed to produce enough to spin a thread using many improvisations to make up for the lack of ancestral knowledge.

The next problem was finding a weaver with sufficient skills but, once found, together they were able to recreate, as near as possible, a Dhaka muslin cloth. Their first few traditional shirts, called saris, were sold for thousands of dollars, and Islam now believes that the legend of the fabric’s quality is alive and well.

In a heart-warming salute to his cultural heritage, Islam says: “In this day and age of mass production, it’s always interesting to have something special. And the brand is still powerful. It’s a matter of national prestige. It’s important that our identity is not poor, with a lot of garment industries, but also the source of the finest textile that ever existed.


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