THE STORY OF
7 minute read
The cultivation and weaving of wild silk is rooted in the life and culture of the people of North Eastern India, particularly Assam. From the different varieties of silk, Eri silk is particularly fascinating, as it is created without killing the silkworm. Traditionally, the silk cocoons are boiled with the worm inside, to preserve the continuity of the fibres. According to PETA, 3,000 silk worms are killed to produce one pound of silk, that’s 10,000 silk worms for one silk sari. Interestingly, the Eri silk cocoon is open at one end. This means that the cocoon can only be processed when the moth leaves. This Ahimsa (Peace) silk is, therefore, very popular fibre among Vegans and Buddhists. The word “Ahimsa” is a Sanskrit word, which means “Non-violence” against living things.
"Non-violence is a quality not of the body but of the soul"
- Mahatma Gandhi
Kaushik Borah, is a third generation of rearers, hailing from a small tribe of the Borah community in Phalpur, Lakshmipur district of Assam, where each house has a wooden loom for personal use. When a girl gets married, it’s customary to gift her an ‘Eri Chadhar’ (Bedsheet), which is handwoven by the women at home. A long living tradition of the Assamese culture, it’s a common sight to see them gathered post noon, to weave the ‘Mekhela Chador’ or make traditional attires for themselves.
A silkworm has four stages in its lifecycle; egg, silkworm, pupa and moth. The life cycle of silk moth starts when a female moth lays eggs. The caterpillar or larvae hatch from the eggs. These caterpillars now feed on the leaves and grow in size. In the pupa stage, the worm spins a fibre made up of a protein secretion to form a cocoon. In the last stage, the pupa pierces one end of the cocoon to emerge as a beautiful fully grown moth. Kaushik says that there are two crops harvested every year, first in April and the second in October.
An egg is the first stage of the life cycle of a silkworm. The egg, laid by a female moth, is mostly the size of small dots. A female moth lays around 200-250 eggs after being placed in small habitats made from dried banana leaves, making it conducive and safe for the moth. All this is done inside a storage room at home. Once the silk moth lays the eggs, it dies in 2-3 days, as the entire life span of the moth is only 10-12 days.
A hairy silkworm arises after the eggs crack. The tiny silkworms called the ‘Samia ricini’ are placed in small trays on a bunch of castor leaves from the wild. After 2 days, they are shifted onto a feed of larger leaves tied together and suspended vertically. The worms feed on the leaves for 28 days and grow in size. Care has to be taken to regularly move them to fresh trees, ensuring that they do not run out of leaves.
The silkworms shed their skin or molt, during this period, as they continue to eat and grow to about 12 times their size. Now they are ready to form the cocoon. It takes about 3-5 days for the silkworm to spin the cocoon, as they change colour.
After their final molt, the silkworm now starts to spin the cocoon. The cocoon is formed over a period of 3 days in which the worm moves around 300,000 times to form a beautiful, strong and durable habitat. Two modified salivary glands on the larva's head produce a protein gum called sericin that binds the silk threads together in the cocoon to give protection, until it turns into a brown pupa. However, the change from pupa to adult moth during metamorphosis takes about 8-10 days, and they have to be left untouched. Once the cocoons are fully formed, the rearers get the finished cocoons ready for the last stage.
The cocoons are placed inside a small room after making sure it’s rodent free. After 15 days, the pupa changes into an adult moth, pierces one end of the cocoon and emerges out. The adult moths (both male and female) then begin to mate and the process is called ‘coupling’. Kaushik ties a clean cotton cloth on one side of the room, to make it easy for the female moths to lay eggs and thus the life cycle of silkworm begins again. The moths have characteristic quarter-moon shaped spots on both the upper and lower wings. He adds an interesting fact, that sometimes while rearing, if the female moths are more than the male, he shifts the cotton cloth in an open natural environment, to make it conducive for mating, where the wild moths mate with them, completing the chain of circular farming.
Kaushik keeps 20% of his yield for ‘seeding’ or reproduction, and the rest is sold in the local market. He sells his produce in the form of the cocoons, hand spun yarn or even woven Eri cloth to meet the market demands. According to him, the cocoons are of two types – the ‘Cut’ cocoons, that are cut open using a cocoon cutter or ‘Pierced’ cocoons, where the pupa gently exits. The colour of the cocoon depends on what the silkworms eat, ranging from beautiful shades of cream to slightly reddish.
The local traders buy the yield for as little as 950 INR per kilo for pierced cocoons and 400 INR for the cut variety, and in turn sell them to large mills and production houses in Malda, Bengal. Kaushik quips, “Madam, did you know that Eri is also called poor man’s silk, because these industries make large profits by exporting our yarns for 4500 INR, and bear the fruit of our labour, while we barely make anything after all the hard work. I have two sons, but I am not sure if I want them to continue my family tradition, as it’s affecting our mental health and livelihoods. I hope my boys have the fighting power to survive in this unfair world.”
The knowledge the indigenous people have about spinning and weaving is a precious treasure that provides opportunity for exploration. The methods used by the locals are environmentally friendly and sustainable. Despite the faster production of mill spun yarn and machine-woven fabric, many Assamese women are willing to invest their time in handmaking them because, it is a way to embrace their culture, to follow their pace of life, and pass on the craft to the younger generation. There is an old proverb in Assam ‘Dair pani, erir kani’ which says that 'While yogurt cools, Eri cloth provides warmth'.
Our Eri silk cloth comes from a small village called Sunderpur in Bihar, where ’The Little Flower Khadi Village Industry’ was founded in 1980 by Mother Teresa to provide job opportunities for the Leprosy affected people and their families. Today, it provides a dignified livelihood to forty such women, who are all tied together by one common thread of solidarity – the ‘Ahimsa’!
Shabnam, Janaki and Mehrum along with rest of the tribe gather around post noon to sort the empty cocoons, from which the moth has taken flight. This is usually the first step towards weaving the magical cloth. It is called ‘Chunai’, which means ‘Sorting’. The cocoons usually come in two colours - a beautiful off-white and a reddish brown. They are sorted into three piles, two based on colours, and the third one for damaged cocoons. At Aeshaane, we use the broken pieces to make our Upcycled silk cocoon necklaces, thereby minimizing waste, making us a circular brand.
Now ‘Kundev’ takes over and boils these empty nests in water, diluted with soap for about three hours, after which the natural fibres start to loosen up. He repeats this process in small batches over a few weeks, as it’s extremely time consuming and laborious.
He then gently opens up the cocoons by hand, flattens it almost in the shape of a cake and splashes them onto a nearby muddy wall for drying. This process is beautiful and meditative to watch! After the cocoons dry out in the natural heat for about a day or two, they are then packed and stored, until it’s time for spinning!
When we asked Reshma about why Eri continues to be a part of her life, she described how fondly her mother had taught her how to the spin the yarn. It’s been the only source of livelihood for her entire family. So Eri, is not just a piece of cloth, it’s a piece of their rich tradition, of a sacred relationship between mother and daughter, of learning and sharing that must be passed on.
There are many spinning techniques, but in Assam, the spindle remains the one indispensable tool. The traditional technique is to use the ‘Takuri’ or the drop spindle with a weight. This is extremely fascinating, as it’s a mobile tool, where the spinner can easily walk around and spin the yarn simultaneously. But here, our artisans use the time-honoured ‘Charkha’ or the spinning wheel. “The state of mind can easily affect the quality of the yarn. Spinning is like saying a prayer and it’s always been the perfect way of life for me!” says Janaki Devi.
She passes the baton to Shahnaz, Jayamala and the rest of the tribe who weave the soulful cloth by using the traditional wooden looms. The threads in the warp and weft have to be set by using spools, which is quite cumbersome and can easily take about 18 - 20 man hours per loom. “Weaving this piece of cloth is profound and holistic, it has removed the emptiness from my life”! says Mehrum. It’s almost ironical how these empty cocoons have filled our lives with meaning, vision and a sense of purpose.