Gossypium arboreum var. neglecta
August 25, 2017 4:45 PM   Subscribe

It was combed by music and woven in mist. neglecta was a cotton cultivar that grew only on a short stretch of the banks of the Meghna river in Dhaka. Local weavers, over millennia, made finer and finer cloth from it, so incomparable that empires east and west traded for it. But the East India Company couldn't profit from it so they destroyed the industry and tried to wipe out the plant. There might be wild specimens left; the cultivation and processing will need to be re-developed; the cultivars can be compared to specimens held at, for instance, Kew Garden.

The ability of the West to scorn the muslin weavers while admitting that their work was unparalleled is really something to see. And as a final insult to injury, "muslin" in Western sewing currently refers to inexpensive cloth, or a disposable test garment made of it.
posted by clew (12 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting this. I hope they can recover or re-breed the plant.

The pictures in the second link are interesting. One thing is that the working distance from the fell (the growing edge of the cloth) or the shafts (the bits that travel up and down) to the back beam is really short. Much shorter than on a comparably sized western treadle loom suitable for working at those widths. And like 30x shorter than the dimension on several pit looms I saw in India for working with fine silk. Longer is generally better - easier on the fibers and more uniform in the finished cloth. The shortness (and the canvas tarp over the beam itself) must be a way to better manage the brittleness of the fine cotton thread (and it must be brittle when dry, given all the mentions of managing temperature and humidity). Fine linen wants similar coddling on-loom - it is super strong and forgiving when damp or wet, but has almost no elasticity or shear strength when dry.

The other observation (that I make with horror) is that all that weft inlay figuring is done by ultra labor-intensive hand-manipulation (aka one-at-a-time, zillion-thread pickup) with that teensy tapestry bobbin, since the loom has only the two shafts for the plain weave gauze ground. Making the figures with full loom control would also be surprising (that requires a "theory" of loom setup that almost certainly is not worthwhile for one-off designs), but there have been a lot of independent inventions for intermediate convenience, such as one-time setup of "leashes" to raise all the inlay pattern threads together. These fabrics must have been unbelievably expensive to produce, and deeply unpleasant to work on in poor lighting. But so lovely.
posted by janell at 6:18 PM on August 25, 2017 [18 favorites]

No matter how many such stories I encounter, the reach of colonialism's destructiveness, and the utter smallness of its reasoning, never cease to astonish. Thank you for posting this.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 6:50 PM on August 25, 2017 [13 favorites]

What a great passage. Thanks for posting.
This thread was spun in intensely humid conditions, usually in the morning and evening, and then only by young women, whose supple fingers worked with water bowls around them to moisten the air, or else beside riverbanks or on moored boats. They often sang as they spun, and if the river was shrouded in fog, passing travelers brought back tales of muslin being made by mermaids singing in the mist.

Even the seeds for the next planting season were specially treated to keep them ready to germinate. After being carefully selected and dried in the sun, they were put in an earthen pot in which ghee (clarified butter) had been kept. Its mouth was sealed airtight, then it was hung from the ceiling of the hut at the height of an average individual over the kitchen fire to keep it moderately warm.

The most delicate, the very lightest of fibers were spun into muslin thread, and this was obtained by using a dhunkar, a bamboo bow tautly strung with catgut. The special bow for muslin cotton was small, and only women did the work—presumably because a light touch was needed. When it was strummed (dhun also means a light raga in classical Indian music) in a distinctive way, the lightest fleece from the cotton pile separated from the heavier fibers and rose into the air. One theory is that the strumming, by vibrating the air over the cotton pile, reduced its pressure enough to allow the very lightest fibers to be pulled upward. It was these finest of fibers—a mere eight percent of the total cotton harvest—that went into the making of the finest muslin.

Indeed, Dhaka muslin was woven out of air.
posted by euphorb at 7:11 PM on August 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Wow this is amazing. I have been reading up on jamdani weaving myself, as I've been exploring various supplementary weft techniques for my own admittedly amateur fibre crafting (and none involving cotton spinning yet). Lovely to hear about this effort, I really wish them the very best.
posted by cendawanita at 7:53 PM on August 25, 2017

I hope this works.

One thing is that the working distance from the fell (the growing edge of the cloth) or the shafts (the bits that travel up and down) to the back beam is really short.

I love reading sentences like this, where I almost understand what is being said, but not quite.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:11 PM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I love light airy muslin.
posted by Oyéah at 8:23 PM on August 25, 2017

I was horrified by the working all needing to be done in the damp, because that was also true of fine linen in Europe, and working constantly in the damp slowly killed the women with TB and malnutrition. I hope that in a hot country it's less dangerous.

You wouldn't happen to have seen a seersucker loom, would you have, janell?

posted by clew at 8:43 PM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was curious that a plant native to a regularly misty environment had fibers that reacted in an unusual way to humidity. Was that useful to the plant? (What is baumwolle for, to the plant?)
Data implicate an origin for Gossypium 5–15 million years ago (mya) and a rapid early diversification of the major genome groups. Allopolyploid cottons appear to have arisen within the last million years, as a consequence of trans-oceanic dispersal of an A-genome taxon to the New World followed by hybridization with an indigenous D-genome diploid. Subsequent to formation, allopolyploids radiated into three modern lineages, including those containing the commercially important species G. hirsutum and G. barbadense.
not the Just-So I was looking for; maybe we don't know?; aha, the cotton hairs (not technically fibers! each a single cell!) were originally to increase seed dispersal, but commercial cotton has been bred past that point.
posted by clew at 8:55 PM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I haven't seen an industrial or purpose-built loom for seersucker, no. Original seersucker is only two different tensions in warp stripes, yeah? So you could weave it on any loom with two back beams, I think. Or even with a separately weighted second warp and a single beam. The lazy modern way would be to use stripes of different fibers in either warp or weft, such that one shrinks and the other doesn't, and get the crimp from the differential shrinkage.
posted by janell at 9:06 PM on August 25, 2017

Can you explain the biology part a bit more?
posted by janell at 9:08 PM on August 25, 2017

The evolutionary bit is describing Gossypium having separated into several species and then hybridized in the wild. Human plant breeding hybridizes plants to combine desirable traits, and also induces polyploidal plants, plants with several complete copies of their genome, which can be bigger or more floriferous or conveniently fertile or conveniently infertile. (But polyploidy is expensive, because DNA is a expensive molecule.) Gossypium not only became polyploidal on its own but has complete parallel genomes, within one plant, from distinct species (allopolyploidal) and all the Gossypium that are useful to us, Old and New World, are allopolyploidal.

I've always liked the fact that it got domesticated in both hemispheres.

Then the structural biology of each cotton-hair on a seed can be made of several kinds or shapes of molecules, which give different cotton species' wool different texture and strength and reaction to humidity. I assume the different structures helped the cotton plant disperse its seed so widely that it could become a transAtlantic allopolyploid...
posted by clew at 9:28 PM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Here's a technical-several-times-over argument that it wasn't protectionism for the British calico that led to the dominance of the British cotton industry.

I think the argument is that protectionism for the British silk and Irish linen industries, plus technical leaps driven by the hosiery industry, accidentally led to dominance of British calico. Full of details about the laws and the actual structure and uses of the fabrics, which I enjoyed. This is back when fustian was good stuff.

Surprising bit: the statute as linked applied only to printed dyed or colored stuffs, so would not have applied to the best Dhaka muslin, which was almost always left mist-white (sometimes with white embroidery).
posted by clew at 5:10 PM on September 21, 2017

« Older Britain had ‘got a new suit in exchange for an old...   |   “Can Star Citizen be made?” Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments