Silk is called the Queen of Textiles. It has always been the choice fabric of Royalty and Nobility. It still is the choice fabric of designers and creators of apparel and connoisseurs of great dressing. Silk has that certain natural fineness that other textiles cannot match.
Silk makes up only about 0.2% of the world’s textile fabrics production. The demand for silk therefore far outstrips the supply and the market is huge.
There are four well-known types of silk. They are:
- Mulberry silk – The world’s most loved and widely used. 80% of silk textiles are mulberry silk. Examples are the silk sari worn by Indian women, mekhela and chadar of Assamese women, and the jainsem, dhara and mukhli of Khasi women. The yarn comes from the Bombyx mori silkworm which mostly feeds on leaves of the mulberry plant, Morus indica.
- Muga silk is the most difficult to produce. It comes from the Anthereae assama silkworm that thrives mostly on leaves of the Som tree, Machilus bombycina. Muga yarn is also the most expensive, costing upwards of Rs. 25000/- a kilogram.
- Eri silk culture is indigenous to the North-Eastern region of India. It comes from the silkworm Philosomia ricini that feeds mostly on the leaves of the castor plant, Ricinus communis. The unique thing in eri silk is that the caterpillars are not killed, unlike in other silks where they are boiled in hot water to take out the fibres.
- Tasar is a species of wild silk obtained from the silkworm Antheraea mylitta. Tasar is sometimes called Oak Tasar and this silk is widely produced in many countries of South East Asia including India. Arjuna and Jamun trees are some important food plants of the Tasar silkworm.
Mulberry and Eri silkworms are reared indoors while Muga and Tasar ones are reared outdoors.
Ryndia, and the Making of Meghalaya’s Eri Silk
Meghalaya is well known for Eri silk or Ryndia. The fibre of this silk has cotton-like behaviour. Eri has a rougher texture and is heavier than other silks but it can be spun into finer and shinier material. But it is softer than other silks or cotton which makes it the preferred fabric in Germany and some other European countries for making baby nappies. They are softer than cotton and not abrasive, therefore very suitable for baby’s tender skin.
Eri silk rearing (and other silk rearing) and the making of silk is extremely labour intensive, constituting so many meticulous and cumbersome steps that include:
- Selecting best quality cocoons for seed
- Moth production out of the seed cocoons
- Mating of the moths within 12-24 hours
- Laying of eggs with 6-10 days
- Hatching of eggs and birth of the larvae
- Feeding of the young larvae on food plants for 32-60 days
- Collecting the matured larvae and storing them among dry leaves till they become pupae
- Allowing the pupae to pierce the cocoon and the threads out
- Spinning the threads
Eri worm is multivoltine, that is, it can be reared and harvested many times in a year, usually five to six times. The rearers select the best cocoons for the best eggs. Adult moths live only for 3-10 days eating nothing. It seems silk moths live only to love and procreate. In their short life span, each female moth lays about 400-500 eggs. The eggs hatch in 9-10 days and the larvae start feeding immediately. The worms are voracious eaters and can eat up to 30,000 times their weight of leaves!
Raw Eri silk filaments have a natural coating called sericin which is secreted by the insects themselves for hardness and waterproofing. This sericin is easily removed by boiling for about 45 minutes. It then makes the fibres soft for spinning.
The spinning of Eri silk filaments is more labour intensive than other silks. The filaments do not come out as unbroken fibres. They come out crisscrossed, entangled and disjointed and are impractical to reel. Therefore, after opening and taking out the pupae, the fibres are drawn by fingers, twisted and spun into a yarn like cotton or wool.
Eri yarns contain split fibres and knots and therefore can be woven using only the throw shuttle loom and not the flying shuttle one. However, when eri is spun by the process of cutting, combing and carding (short pieces spun and woven) it makes a more uniform fabric.
Eri Silk Fabrics of Meghalaya
The Eri filaments are delicate; the cloth is warm and the material is durable like wool but softer. Eri silk’s natural colour is white to very light cream and always carries some difference between yarns. Colour and shade depend upon a number of factors such as quality of the worms, their feed, temperature and climate. The difference in shade is more distinguishable in men’s shawls because they are seldom dyed into other colours. In women’s apparels, however, the shades get camouflaged because they can come dyed in a variety of colours and designs.
The dyes that Meghalaya weavers use are always vegetable dyes which they generate only from plant parts – leaves, fruits, barks or roots. Sometimes lac is also used to give a brown or black shade to the yarns. The technique of making vegetable dyes is almost a closely guarded secret which only a few know.
The Ails of Meghalaya Eri Silk Industry
Huge potential regardless, the Meghalaya Eri silk industry is unorganised and inconsistent. Even now there are no fulltime producers of Eri silk, despite the high demand. Almost all the work is done by womenfolk who have other chores – household, agriculture, child-bearing and rearing. This leaves them with little time to engage in this gainful but very time-demanding activity.
The other problem is the lack of modern technique. Whether it is spinning or weaving, the method of production employed is still the traditional one – manual and very low in efficiency and output with inconsistent quality. The looms are mostly floor looms which do not give a fine weave. They also cause health problems for the workers.
Improved machinery is the need for Meghalaya’s cottage Eri silk industry. If there is enough impetus from the Government, sericulture in Meghalaya can be a great foreign exchange earner as the demand for Eri silk is very high in European markets. In Umden village of Ri Bhoi district, ‘Sidentraum’ a German organisation, in collaboration with the Meghalaya government, has come to the aid of the weavers by providing them with better methods of production technology and machinery. They have provided what they call the ‘Flying 8’ looms which not only work faster and better but do not lead to back problems like the floor looms.
The Great Potential of Meghalaya Eri
The price of the yarn depends upon the thread diameter. These diameters are calculated in what is called the New English system and are denoted as 2/60 nm or 2/120 nm or 2/140 nm. Fine weaves come from smaller diameter yarns such as 2/120 which costs about Rs. 3500/- a kilogram while the 2/140 nm yarn costs about Rs.6000/- a kilogram.
What is sad is that many of these Eri silk farmers are unaware of the potential of their merchandise. In the bargain they lose out to middlemen from other parts of the country, especially neighbouring Assam, by selling cocoons to them. These cocoons are sometimes sold as low as Rs. 700/- a kilo whereas the yarn that comes out is at least four times that price. The result is that Assam’s Silk industry has obtained the GI tag and has brought itself into the international limelight.
The situation now is however not at all that bad. When compared with the 1980s when the industry had all but died, there is a quiet revival since the 1990s because of a few intrepid women of Ri Bhoi district that did, and are still doing, their best to keep the art alive. What they need is active assistance, improved technical know-how, training and good markets. With encouragement from the government, NGOs and marketing agencies there is no reason why the Eri silk industry of Meghalaya should not go international. After all the Eri silkworm is also a native of Meghalaya!
Eri, Earth-friendly and Humane
Eri silk’s USP is its non-violent or peaceful processing method. Eri silk is high on eco-friendliness, sustainability and renewability. Blend it with bamboo, cotton, wool or other fibres, even banana fibres. Eri silk is the pride of the North-east, Meghalaya included. It needs to be guarded, nurtured and improved upon in every necessary way. Its creators need to be patronised for existence and livelihood. In return, Eri silk natural fibres will lend you elegance combined with comfort, a unique style statement that cannot be duplicated. Apply Eri everywhere – dress up your persona, drape your windows, or adorn your furniture. Eri, the peaceful silk, works!