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Project introduction

How Villages and Towns in Bengal Dressed London Ladies in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries' was a unique project recently delivered by the Stepney Community Trust. It involved recruiting volunteers from London's diverse communities to research and recreate historical costumes worn by ladies in the UK that were made from Bengal textiles. The project was based on the idea that there was a hidden but very important and deeply connected shared heritage that links Bengal and Britain for nearly four centuries that needed to be revealed. The recreation ideas was considered to be a uniquely effective way of engaging individuals from London's diverse communities who would find the story of that deep connection interesting and enjoy recreating historical costumes. It was envisaged that the process of the project and the end product would help generate further interest for similar process of learning of history through new and creative ways.

Bengal supplied a range of textiles to the world until the late 18th Century and continued to be an important source of Indian textiles for Britain for several decades of the 19th Century. Bangladeshi and other Bengali people in the UK and in the Indian sub-continent are to some extent familiar with the names of a group of hand woven fabrics that came to be known as muslin, the famous textiles of Bengal. Except the Jamdani fabric, which was also imported from Bengal as a luxury fashion item by the East India Company, not much is known about the other varieties of muslin except their names, such as'Malmal (the finest sort), Jhuna (used by native dancers), Rang (of transparent and net-like texture), Abirawan (fancifully compared with running water), Khassa (special quality, fine or elegant), Shabnam (morning dew), Alaballee (very fine), Tanzib (adorning the body), Nayansukh (pleasing to the eye), Buddankhas (a special sort of cloth), Seerbund (used for turbans), Kumees (used for making shirts), Doorea (striped), Charkona (chequered cloth) and Jamdanee (figured cloth)'.

There exist many mythical and legendary stories about the famous muslin textiles and how they were valued around the world. The name of this historical textile is also known within certain groups in the UK and around the world but as far as the general population is concerned very few people are aware of its historical significance. Knowledge and interest in historical muslin seem to be mostly confined within certain sections of the population with family history of imperial connections with India, academic research and associations with heritage institutions, such as museums and stately homes.

The weaving of the muslin textiles has been long dead and currently no one is known to have the necessary skills and knowledge capable of producing these fabrics again. The particular cotton variety of the Dhaka region which provided the raw materials for producing the finest varieties of muslins is also not available now as it is not cultivated anywhere in the region anymore. It is believed that the particular cotton plant that produced the superfine and strong muslin threads may have become extinct, at least, no one currently knows where it may be found. However, as this was a native plant of the region there still exist a strong possibility that somewhere in the wild it is still alive and thriving.

For many generations of people in Bengal, perhaps since the mid to late 19th Century, no one has seen, touched or worn these fabrics. Its legendary stories and reports range from how a certain large amount of muslin could be placed very easily in a small match box to the ‘cutting off of Bengal weavers' hands and tongues’ by the British, in order to destroy this important indigenous industry of Bengal. The memory, right or wrong, of how this indigenous industry clothed people around the world which brought associated economic benefits to the region, is still very much alive in the consciousness of the people of Bengal (Bangladesh, parts of India and the Bengali Diaspora). This memory has acted both as a symbol of pride and from time to time provided nationalist fuels against British rule in India during the colonial period.

Legend aside there is very little accurate and factual information in circulation on muslin or other historical Bengal textiles. The Bangladeshi and Bengali Diaspora in the UK are relatively more disadvantaged than people in the India subcontinent regarding knowledge and familiarity with the textiles. The schooling and the education system in the UK provides very little scope for young people to learn about this important heritage that links Bengal with Britain for nearly four centuries. There are experts in the field and many archives and museums around the world have important records, samples and travellers accounts. These sources can be utilised to develop a good picture of what the muslin textiles were, their historical significance, the reasons for their enduring reputation, etc.