Muslin fabric originated in India and the Middle East, and was introduced to Europe in the late 17th century. Muslin is a plain woven cotton fabric available in different weights and widths. In medieval times, muslin was often decorated with gold embroidery. Muslin has many uses and continues to be a popular fabric today.
From Field to Factory
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Muslin begins with the cotton boll. When mature, cotton bolls open revealing the plant's soft mass of white fibres. These are picked either by hand or by machine; hand-picking is labour-intensive but results in cleaner lint or fibres, while machine-picking is faster and more cost-effective. Once picked, the lint must be cleaned. This is done by the cotton gin, a machine that separates the lint from any cotton seeds that were picked. The lint is pressed into a large bundle or bale and stored.
From Bale to Bobbin
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Once baled, the cotton is sent to be carded. Carding is the process in which cotton lint is aligned so that the fibres travel in one direction. From there, the cotton is ready to be spun into thread. For centuries, spinning was done by hand but machines now process the cotton, stretching the cotton fibres to a uniform thickness of thread. This thread is wrapped onto bobbins.
Weaving Cotton Muslin
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The cotton thread is now ready to be woven on a loom. The vertically threaded cotton, called the warp, is strengthened by adding sizing or starch. The warp is mechanically lifted while a shuttle, threaded with additional cotton called the weft, shoots across the gap produced as the wires of the loom lift and separate the warp threads. Muslin is a plain weave without any pattern; the warp and weft threads are identical.
When talking about cotton sheeting, counts come into play. Count refers to how tightly the warp and weft threads were woven per square inch of fabric. The higher the number, the softer and stronger the finished fabric will be. Counts generally run from 128 to 310; muslin is rated less than 180 count. When the weaving is complete, the warp threads are cut and tied. The cotton is wrapped on bolts and delivered to fabric stores or textile companies.
The woven muslin can be worked without any further processing. Traditionally, muslin has been sold as plain unbleached cotton and is often still stiff with sizing. Most at-home sewers wash the muslin before working with it to pre-shrink the material and remove the sizing at the same time. Some muslin producers bleach the fabric after the weaving process, removing any colour irregularities and the sizing before it reaches consumers, while others dye the muslin a light brown.
Working with Muslin
With its smooth texture, cotton muslin fabric can be dyed and painted. It is commonly painted and used as a background by photographers, and as a backdrop in the theatre industry. Muslin found favour in Victorian times as a draping material for women's dresses, and designers today still use it. The use of muslin as a 'practice' fabric for cutting and draping before beginning to work on more expensive fabrics is common today among designers.