In the early twenty-first century muslin is an inexpensive, bleached or unbleached cotton plain-weave cloth. There is no direct connection of the name "muslin" to the earlier thin silk cloths of Mosul; rather, the name arose in the eighteenth century from the French word for foam (mousse), which seemed to convey the feel and texture of India's filmy cotton product. When introduced into Europe in the 1600s by the English and Dutch East India Companies, "muslin" denoted a soft, white, plain-weave cotton cloth produced in India, notably around Dacca where the constant, intense humidity eased the stress of the spinning and weaving processes on the fibers.
Some muslins—their degrees of delicacy graphically identified in terms of spider webs, woven wind, and evening dew—were made from particularly fragile yarns. Less ethereal versions like mulmul, or mull, were sometimes embellished with embroidered and drawn-thread floral designs.
The classically-inspired white muslin dresses of the early nineteenth century are well-known, but during the eighteenth century, ladies wore muslin in the form of petticoats, aprons, and kerchiefs. French reformers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau urged parents to dress their children in unrestrictive, washable cotton clothing better suited to their ages than the customary miniature-adult styles. Girls who grew up wearing loose muslin dresses became women who considered the ingénue habit worth continuing—undoubtedly encouraged by Marie Antoinette's scandalous example.
Although silks and heavier fabrics reclaimed fashion dominance by 1825, muslin continued in favor for young women's and children's dresses. Embroidered muslin accessories made pretty foils to mid-century wool, silk, and printed cotton garments. The first decade of the twentieth century saw a resurgence of enthusiasm for fine cotton dresses like those of a hundred years earlier—equally likely to be called muslin, mull, longcloth, nainsook, dimity, organdy, batiste, cambric, or lawn.
India muslins proceeded to undermine the dominance of domestic linen manufactures. At the end of the eighteenth century, European manufacturers were imitating the medium-weight India cottons and moving on to master fine ones. Delicate linen favorites like cambric and lawn increasingly came to be made of cotton instead, mainly because cotton was cheaper. In the 1830s the English exported striped and checked "muslin" for cheap clothing worn by American sailors who almost certainly would have disdained the dainty kind—an indication that utility weight domestic cotton cloth was already usurping the exotic name. By the 1870s, "muslin" was being touted for ladies' underwear, still the hard-wearing, sturdy item it had been when made of linen. Muslin has become known as a cheap, durable cloth suitable for pattern draping, upholstery, stage scenery, drop cloths and dust covers.
The world-changing influence of these imports culminated in a legacy of a few thin cotton fabrics, some of which bear names originally assigned to European linens. The once-evocative word "muslin" is now attached to an opaque, utilitarian cotton cloth that first entered the West simply designated as "calico," a name that now specifies a fairly substantial cotton fabric printed with tiny motifs.
See alsoCambric, Batiste, and Lawn .
Irwin, John, and P. R. Schwartz. Studies in Indo-European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.
Montgomery, Florence. Textiles in America. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1984.
Paine, Sheila. Chikan Embroidery: The Floral Whitework of India. Aylesbury, U.K.: Shire Publications, Ltd., 1989.
Susan W. Greene
mus·lin / ˈməzlən/ • n. lightweight cotton cloth in a plain weave: [as adj.] a white muslin dress. DERIVATIVES: mus·lined / ˈməzlənd/ adj.