by Suzanne Labry
Workhorse or Rarity?
Cotton muslin, whether bleached or unbleached, is the unsung hero of the North American quilter’s fabric stash.
Available in a variety of widths ranging from
36 inches all the way up to over 100 inches, the humble fabric has been used for everything
from blocks to backing and from chin guards
to hanging sleeves.
Photo Right: Muslin curtains on the building where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed. Star of the Republic Museum, Washington-on-the-Brazos, Texas." Photo by Alex Labry.
In one of those semantic twists that make language so interesting, however, the inexpensive, durable, and versatile fabric that quilters in the United States and Canada know as muslin (and that quilters in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand call “calico”) is the opposite of the exquisite fabric that first gave muslin
So just what is muslin anyhow? To quilters, muslin (or calico) is a sturdy, plain weave, equal weft and warp fabric in either white or ecru, depending on whether it is bleached or unbleached. But in Bangladesh and India—where muslin cloth originated many centuries ago—the term refers to an extremely fine, painstakingly hand-woven fabric in beautiful colors and designs used in the most expensive of saris and garments—a far cry from the utilitarian material that quilters depend on.
In 2013, UNESCO included the art of weaving Bangladeshi muslin in its list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The word muslin derives from the Indian port city known in ancient times as Maisolos (now called Masulipatnam). It is said that muslin was so sought after by Roman ladies that merchants in Rome could charge an ounce of gold for each ounce of the fabric.
Marco Polo wrote about muslin in 1298. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, it was extraordinarily popular among the wealthy in Europe. The commodity was so lucrative that muslin began being made in other places in Central and East Asia.
During the British cotton trade of that era, it is said that in order to gain an advantage over local Indian muslin, the British East India Company brutally suppressed the knowledge of fine muslin weaving by cutting off the thumbs of muslin weavers. How the name for such an expensive fabric in the Old World could have come to be associated with the plainest of cloth in the New World is a mystery that I have been unable to unravel.
What is clear, however, is that the all-purpose fabric known as muslin in North America has a myriad of uses, and not just for quilters. Dressmakers use it to fashion a trial version of a garment before rendering the design in more expensive fabrics—in fact the term “making a muslin” means to make a draft of a garment.
Photographers and videographers love unbleached muslin for backdrops because it diffuses light with a rich, soft glow. Manufacturers use it to make samples and bags. Cooks find it handy in the kitchen for a variety of tasks. Theater set designers use it to create scenes because it holds paint and dyes well. Crafters use it to make dish towels, dolls, toys, and a host of other items. And quilters? Well, like I said, good ole common muslin is their unsung hero.