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Photographers are infamous for carrying large, heaving equipment with them whenever they are shooting on location; cameras, lenses, and lights are just a couple examples of what weighs down photographers’ heavy bags (which are oftentimes given to the assistants to trudge around on location).

In an effort to decrease the weight of their ‘portable’ equipment, switching out paper backdrops for muslin backdrops creates a great reduction in shoulder stress for photographers and their hard-working assistants. While the Bengali fabric Muslin has uses in dressmaking, culinary arts, theater and even medicine, photographers know muslin as the standard backdrop alternative to paper, and some prefer its somewhat translucent gauze.

Another advantage of muslin is that it has easy to dye texture. Photographers can paint their muslin fabrics to create a variety of colors and patterns. Perhaps the most famous use of colored muslin is the green screen, utilized in the technique known as chroma key. In this technique, photographers (or videographers) place their subject in front of a green screen and then place use post-production to place the subject into another image or background. Although this technique can be achieved using any color, green is most frequently used as it differs the most from human skin tones.(1)

model posing on cranberry muslin Photo Courtesy of: Ryan Walsh, Featuring: Cranberry Washed Muslin

In addition to being used as a backdrop, muslin is used in both theater and photography as a scrim, or a diffuser for direct light. Since direct, unfiltered light can often be unflattering and harsh, dispersing the light can make for a softer, more desirable lighting effect. Muslin can also be used as a light reflector or bounce in both theater and photography, a light-colored surface used to bounce a light source back onto the other side of the subject without overpowering the initial effect by using a second light. 

Muslin is defined as “a cotton fabric made in various degree of fineness and often printed, woven, or embroidered in patterns, especially a cotton fabric of plain weave, used for sheets and for a variety of other purposes.” (2)  The origin of the word “Muslin” is ambiguous and often debated. Since it isn’t an actual word in Bengali, Sanskrit or Persian, it is presumed that it was a European name given to the fabric. Some say that the name is derived from the city name Mosul, Iraq, a historic trade center, while others say it referred to Musulipattam, the headquarters for European trade in South India.

Muslin is also mentioned in historic documentation of trade routes. In Marco Polo’s documentation of his 1293 trade-fueled travels titled The Travels, which is also sometimes called The Travels of Marco Polo, he mentions the fabric and its trade value. Muslin was also mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography, a book detailing the Roman Empire’s knowledge of world geography and trade, as well as The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a book written in Greek delineating trade routes and navigation information. (3)

muslin backdropPhoto Featuring: Autumn Brown Crushed Muslin Backdrop

Muslin reached a peak in popularity during the Regency Era. For the French, this period began with the death of Louis XIV in 1715, and ended in 1723, whereas the British marked this period with literary excellence and opulent fashions. Pauline Bonaparte (sister to the more famous Napoleon) would wear the semi-transparent muslin to be painted in, causing a gossipy outrage regarding prudence (more info on her here). (4)

Although there is some speculation, most believe that muslin originated in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Historically the best Muslins were made in Dhaka, Sonargaon, Dhamrai, Teetbady, Junglebary, and Bajitpur, all of which are located in Bangladesh. (5)

There are many different grades of muslin, and different groups of trade workers historically used each of them for a different purpose. Mamal was the highest-grade fabric, and was typically reserved for royalty. Constructing Mamal Muslins could take up to six months. Jhuna’ was used by native dancers, whereas Seerbund’ was used for turbans. (6)

Muslin was featured in London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, which is largely considered the first World Fair. Unfortunately, after the Battle of Palashi, muslin declined in value for numerous reasons including the empire’s newfound inability to buy goods. This placed the cheap English reproductions ahead of true Muslin in the world market.

While seamstresses say that the quality of this fabric has declined, for the purpose of photography and lighting muslin is a high quality (and lightweight!) tool that will work as a backdrop or light reflector, and will deduct a couple pounds from your assistant’s work load.

Megan Youngblood

Megan Youngblood is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer with roots in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about art, technology, all things counter-culture, and the occasional auto-biographical musing. Her writing has appeared at Hyperallergic, The Creators Project, Stocktown, Bowery Boogie, and, of course, here. For more on Megan, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.


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