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Muslin

Embroidered muslin from what is now Bangladesh, early 19th century. Embroidered muslin from what is now Bangladesh, early 19th century. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK, acc. no. IM.25&A-1924.

In the UK, muslin is the name for a very fine, almost transparent cotton fabric. It was used for ladies' garments, light weight curtains, hangings, etc. The first use of the word in England dates to the early seventeenth century and is related to the French term mousseline and the Italian mussolina and musselo, allegedly referring to the town of Mosul (in modern northern Iraq), or to the Indian port of Masulipatnam.

Handwoven, fine Indian muslin  started to be directly imported into Britain in the seventeenth century, mainly via the British East India Company. In the late eighteenth century, muslin started to be manufactured in Europe, especially in Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland (used for St. Gallen embroidery).

At the time, muslin was often used for fine embroidery. It was widely used, for example, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for tambour embroidered dresses (especially Empire style dresses; compare Ayrshire whitework). By the mid-nineteenth century it was used for collars, cuffs and pelerines.

According to The Dictionary of Needlework (1882:352), there were many types of muslin available in Britain during the latter half of the nineteenth century, including Buke (or ‘Book’) muslin that was suitable for tambour work. Most of the so-called tambour muslins were made in Scotland (Glasgow and Paisley in particular) and Bolton in northeastern England.

In the early nineteenth century there was an English saying 'a bit of muslin', meaning a woman or a girl. The saying was equal to the idea of the ‘fairer sex’, rather than being derogatory. In The Netherlands, the cloth is sometimes known as neteldoek.

In the USA, the word muslin can refer to various types of cotton cloth, including coarser and heavier versions suitable for shirts, bedding, etc.

Sources:

GVE

Last modified on Sunday, 30 April 2017 12:08