One of the oldest fabrics in the world is called muslin. It originated in Mosul, Iraq but quickly spread all over the globe. So what is muslin fabric, and why is it so popular?
Muslin fabric is a plain woven, light fabric, usually made with cotton fiber. The high thread count and loose weave make it a soft, flexible, airy fabric. It has a wide array of uses across fields, including fashion, culinary arts, medicine, theater, and photography.
Because it is made with a durable fiber and a versatile weaving technique, muslin is easy to care for, affordable to make, and versatile to use. It may not be the flashiest, most textured fabric, but it’s a workhorse. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about muslin and why it’s still such a common fabric.
What Is Muslin Fabric?
Muslin is a plain-weave fabric. It has one warp thread woven through a single weft thread at a time. Traditionally, muslin is woven with very fine, thin, handspun yarn. The thinness of the fiber and the single layer of the weave makes it a delicate, lightweight fabric.
Muslin is also a very old style of fabric. It dates back to the 13th century when Marco Polo described it after visiting Mosul, Iraq. The city of Mosul also gives muslin fabric its name. However, most muslin historically came from Bangladesh and India.
For centuries, weavers made muslin by hand from beginning to end. They used cotton plants to make thin yarn, then wove that yarn into cloth. Muslin has a loose weave, so a single layer of muslin fabric is thin, flexible, and airy. The labor involved and the high quality of the resulting fabric made muslin incredibly valuable.
What Is Muslin Made of?Muslin is made of cotton or a poly/cotton blend. Originally, all muslin came from the same type of cotton plant, the Phuti karpas, which grows well in the Indian subcontinent. This particular variety of cotton produces very fine fibers.
It’s possible to make muslin with other varieties of cotton, too. The weave, as much as the fiber content, is what makes a fabric muslin. Fiber blends such as cotton/silk or cotton/viscose (a cheaper, semi-synthetic silk alternative) are not uncommon for muslin.
Today, commercial manufacturers make muslin alongside hand-crafters. Not all muslin uses the Phuti karpas cotton. To cut down on costs, some manufacturers use a polyester/cotton blend for muslin weaving. No matter what the fiber content is, however, the weaving technique is the same.
How Is Muslin Made?
Muslin is a woven fabric rather than a knitted fabric. To make muslin, you weave a single weft thread horizontally through vertical warp threads. In a muslin fabric, the weft weaves through each warp thread one at a time to give the fabric the light, breezy weight it’s known for.
This technique is called plain weave, and it’s one of the most basic weaving techniques. The fabric looks the same on both sides, as each thread overlaps identically on the front and back. It’s also a sturdy weave, as all the threads form right angles with each other.
The muslin version of plain weave is a loose weave. There’s low tension between the warp and weft, which lets the fabric move easily. This gives the fabric a good drape and flexibility. The finer the threads are, the more watery the muslin is.
There are multiple types of muslin, graded for different uses. The density of the weave is one factor that determines what kind of muslin the fabric is. The easiest way to change the density of the weave is to add or subtract warp threads. The higher the warp thread count, the lighter the resulting muslin fabric.
Types of Muslin Fabric
There are four primary categories of muslin. Each category has additional types, depending on the intended use for the fabric and the manufacturer. There are also historical muslin types that refer to how and where manufacturers wove the cloth.
The four primary muslin types are:
- Gauze: This is the lightest muslin. Examples of gauze muslin are cheesecloth, clothing, and medical gauze. Gauze muslin is often a sheer, almost transparent fabric. Gauze muslin also makes a good press cloth for sewing and ironing.
- Mull: Mull is a common form of muslin. It’s slightly heavier than gauze and is primarily used for pattern drafting or as a lining in more structured garments. Some mull muslins use silk or viscose blended with cotton to give the fabric more shape.
- Swiss Muslin: Swiss muslin is identifiable because it often has raised bumps or dots on the surface of the fabric. It’s denser than mull but still breathable. It’s a popular choice for summer or warm-weather clothing.
- Sheeting: Sheeting muslin is the heaviest muslin fabric. It’s more useful than other muslin because it is more durable. Furniture upholstery, home decor, and theatrical backdrops are commonly made out of sheeting muslin.
All muslin shares certain characteristics, including thinness and transparency. Even the thickest grade of muslin, sheeting, is a lightweight cloth. These muslin grades are standardized today because commercial machine manufacturing makes it possible. However, before industrialization, handmade muslins had a wider variety.
A 16th-century document about the Mughal Empire called the Ain-i-Akbari, listed more than half a dozen different muslin cloth types. They were distinguished by thread count, the size of each woven piece, and how soft the fabric felt. These designations are less common now, as the global fabric industry has changed significantly.
Muslin Fabric Properties
One of the reasons muslin has remained a fabric staple over the centuries is because of its durability. The plain weave technique is a strong weave because it limits the tension on individual threads.
Muslin holds up well to multiple washes and frequent wear. Cotton is a naturally durable fiber, which, combined with the strength of plain weave, makes for a sturdy fabric. While it’s a soft, supple fabric, it isn’t delicate.
TextureMuslin has a soft texture. The plain weave, high thread count, and super-fine threads give it a smooth surface on both sides of the fabric. The higher the thread count, the softer the muslin will be.
Thicker threads lead to a coarse fabric. This is what makes sheeting muslin stiffer and rougher than gauze or mull. Muslin threads are all a uniform size, so no matter how thick they are, the resulting fabric will have a smooth surface.
Swiss muslin is the exception. This type of muslin has an intentional texture of raised dots or bumps on the surface of the fabric. It’s a decorative addition rather than a functional one. Despite the bumps, Swiss muslin is still a soft fabric.
How weather-resistant muslin is depends on what the fiber content is. The more cotton fiber there is in a muslin fabric, the more weather resistant it will be. Cotton muslin absorbs water well and can withstand sun exposure than cotton/polyester, cotton/silk, or cotton/viscose blends.
Prolonged, direct sun exposure and precipitation will damage muslin eventually. However, it is a durable fabric, so it can take more exposure than most synthetics or knit fabrics.
Muslin is a high-absorbency, quick-drying fabric. However, it is too thin to wick moisture well. It will absorb moisture from the skin, but because the fabric is so fine, you will still feel the moisture.
Muslin also has a high breathability rate as the weave is loose and open. The space in the weave doesn’t trap moisture against the body, but it can’t pull it away from the body either. While muslin isn’t a good moisture-wicking fabric, it is still comfortable in damp or humid environments because it dries quickly and lets air through.
Muslin wrinkles easily. It is prone to wrinkling after washing or drying or after extended wear. The loose weave means there’s plenty of room in the fabric for fibers to twist and move, which is what leads to wrinkles.
However, it has a high heat resistance and irons easily. So while it takes wrinkles quickly, they are also easy to press out. Muslin also responds well to steaming. These properties make it a great fabric for pressing clothes.
Most muslin is extremely absorbent. Cotton is a highly absorbent fiber, so the more cotton there is in a muslin fabric, the more absorbent it will be. However, even fiber blend muslins are good absorbers.
Each thread in a fabric absorbs moisture, so the more threads in a weave, the more moisture the fabric will absorb. Muslin has a very high thread count, so the corresponding absorbency is high.
Muslin is not UV/light-resistant. It will not provide sun protection, even when it provides some sun cover.
Most muslin is sheer, so it won’t even provide shade. Thicker muslin such as sheeting has enough opacity to provide some cover from light, but it doesn’t stop UV rays. It won’t absorb much light, which makes it useful for theatrical and photography backgrounds.
Muslin is an easy-to-sew fabric. One of its most common uses is for pattern drafting because of how easy it is to use. Its smooth texture and flexibility mean you can cut it into virtually any shape and it won’t catch or tear on your sewing machine.
Because the fabric is thin and fine, sharper needles work best to avoid damaging the fabric. However, snags are easy to smooth out as the weave is so uniform and loose. Muslin is a forgiving fabric, so it’s a great practice fabric for new sewists.
Muslin is the perfect fabric for warm-weather climates. It’s breathable and light, so you can layer it easily without overheating. It dries quickly, which is useful for when you may be sweatier than usual.
It’s also incredibly soft, so you can wear it directly next to your skin. It won’t chafe or irritate like thicker synthetic fabrics. It gives you the softness of silk or viscose without the threat of water damage.
When muslin was hand-woven from hand-spun threads, it was expensive and valuable. Since the rise of industrial fabric production, it has become an incredibly affordable fabric. It is easy to weave and manufacture, and fiber blends make materials more affordable as well.
While there is a price difference between different qualities of muslin, plain undyed muslin is cheap and accessible. The more chemical treatments a fabric gets (such as flame-retardant coatings or wrinkle-resistant treatments), the more expensive the muslin.
What Is Muslin Fabric Used for?Muslin fabric has numerous uses within the fashion and beyond. There are culinary, medical, theatrical, and photographic applications and garment construction and sewing uses. It’s a versatile, widely produced fabric.
In fashion and sewing it has four primary uses. First, it is useful as a lining fabric. Because it is soft and thin, you can line more structured garments made of less comfortable fabric in muslin to change the feel without changing the garment’s shape. Wool coats, skirts, or blazers can have muslin linings.
Plain muslin is also useful for pattern drafting. Designers and sewists will make mock-ups of garments out of muslin to make fit adjustments before cutting more expensive fabric. This is a great way to make custom-fit garments out of virtually any pattern.
The third fashion use for muslin is for warm-weather clothing and embellishments. Muslin is sheer and thin, so it’s often paired with other fabrics, but Swiss muslin is common in lighter clothing as a top layer.
Finally, muslin is a good all-purpose fabric for pressing clothes. It has a high heat resistance and won’t imprint its texture into other fabrics as the threads are so fine. It’s also sheer enough that you can see the fabric below through the cloth.
Outside of clothing, muslin has more utilitarian purposes. Fine gauze muslin has surgical applications and makes a high-quality wound dressing. It’s soft on the skin, absorbs blood well, and is quick and cheap to produce.
Cheesecloth is a common culinary muslin, useful for everything from straining to preventing grease splatters. Theatrical backdrops, scrims, and photography backgrounds are made with sheeting muslin. This thicker muslin lets light through while providing a smooth, even background.
Is Muslin Fabric Breathable?Muslin is very breathable. The open weave and the fiber content make it one of the most breathable fabrics.
The weave style, called plain weave or tabby weave, involves only one layer of thread in the warp and one in the weft. This keeps the fabric thin and helps leave space between the threads. In lighter muslins like gauze, the spaces are easily visible.
Air moves between these spaces, carrying moisture and heat away from your skin through the fabric. Even when the muslin is a blend, like cotton/polyester, the characteristics of the weave keep it open and airy.
Cotton is a breathable fiber because of the cellular structure of the fiber. Plant fibers have cellulose, which is a substance that has a lot of open space. Air filters through these spaces easily. Combining this breathability with an open weave makes a breathable fabric.
Does Muslin Shrink?
One drawback of the plain weave style is that it can shrink very easily. The space between fibers means they have more freedom to move. This can cause wrinkles, but it also means there’s not much tension keeping the fibers from pulling together.
Muslin will shrink if you dry it on high heat in the dryer. The finer the muslin threads, the more evenly it will shrink. It will not shrink as much as knit cotton, however.
Some manufacturers will sanforize or pre-shrink muslin. Pre-shrunk muslin can still shrink, especially if you heat it when it’s wet; it will just shrink less than untreated muslin.
What Is the Difference Between Muslin and Cotton?
Cotton is a fiber, and muslin is a type of fabric. Not all cotton fabrics are muslin, and not all muslins are 100% cotton. What makes a fabric muslin is a combination of fiber type, thread size, and weave type.
When manufacturers refer to the fabric as 100% cotton, that usually refers to a cotton knit or a cotton jersey fabric. Muslin can be 100% cotton, but it is called muslin because of the plain weave type and the fine-thread fibers.
Cotton muslin is the shorthand term for muslin that’s made with 100% cotton. You can have cotton muslin gauze or cotton muslin sheeting. Not all muslin is pure cotton, however. Swiss muslin and mull tend to be cotton/silk or cotton/viscose blends. Cheaper muslin is sometimes a cotton/polyester blend.
Muslin vs Linen
Muslin and linen are both plain woven fabrics made from natural fibers. However, linen also refers to a specific plant fiber. Linen comes from flax plants, not cotton. There are linen blends, just like there are muslins made with cotton blends.
Linen and muslin have many similar properties. They’re both breathable and smooth. Both fabrics are lightweight and wear well for summer garments. Both fabrics have a long history and a wide variety of uses.
The primary difference is the plant fiber. Linen also tends to be thicker and have a lower thread count than muslin. It isn’t as sheer as muslin or as soft because flax is stiffer and harder to spin than cotton fiber.
How to Care For Muslin Fabric
Muslin is an easy-care fabric. It is machine washable, and you can dry it on a low heat tumble cycle in the dryer or line dry it. Line-drying will cut down on shrinkage and wrinkles.
Washing muslin in cool water with a mild detergent will help it last longer. However, it can withstand high water temperatures and stain removers if necessary. Thinner muslins should be hand-washed to prevent excessive tangling or wrinkling in the washing machine.
Muslin wrinkles easily, especially after washing. You can steam wrinkles out or press them out with an iron.
The only muslin you should never wash is a fire-resistant coated muslin. This is most common for photography and theater backdrops that are close to high-heat lights. Water will wash off the fire-resistant coating, so you should dry clean those items professionally.
Muslin is one of the most useful and versatile fabrics available. From an extravagant hand-made cloth to a utilitarian, everyday fabric, muslin has done it all. It has endured as an important fabric because of its usefulness and durability.
What’s your favorite use for muslin? Have you ever drafted a pattern with muslin? Tell us about it in the comments!