Sandhya Rao, 27 had a tough time choosing the ideal silk sari for her big day. A staunch vegan for many years, she strictly abstained from using silk and leather. Her joy knew no bounds when she discovered Eri silk of Assam, India’s own Ahimsa silk. An elegant, dull gold-hued sari with a subtle luster. The perfect choice that made her day all the more special. The non-violent silk is very popular with not just vegans and Buddhists but also with any silk enthusiast or champion of sustainability and conscious living.
A Sustainable Silk
Eri silk gets its name from the Assamese word “era,” meaning “castor,” as the silkworms from the caterpillar of Samia ricini (Eri silkworm) feed on the leaves of the castor plant (Ricinus communis). Eri is one of the four commercially available silks in India, the other three being Mulberry silk (which accounts for more than 80% of all silk textiles), Tasar and Muga silk. Mulberry and Eri silkworms can be reared indoors, while the worms producing Muga and Tasar are normally reared outdoors. While Assam is the main producer of Eri silk, small quantities are also manufactured in Meghalaya and other northeastern Indian states.
The main differentiator of Eril silk is the structure of the cocoon and the fact that its fiber is not reeled. “The cocoons are open ended and there is an opening for the moth to emerge,” says Khitish Pandya, founder of Eco Tasar and Ecosareeclub. “The cocoon is processed once the moth flies out and hence it is called Ahimsa – or non-violent – silk. In the other three types of silks, the cocoon is closed completely and to make reeled yarn, one has to kill the pupae inside, so that the emerging moth does not cut and damage the cocoon when it emerges.”
“THE TEXTURE OF ERI SILK FABRIC IS FINE AND DENSE, AND HENCE IT IS DURABLE, WITH GOOD TENSILE STRENGTH AND ELASTICITY”Sanjana Lunia, Founder and Creative Head, Eris Home
A Long, Labor-Intensive Process
The cycle from egg to cocoon takes approximately 45-50 days. It is a common sight in the rural areas of Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast: baskets covered with castor leaves with the silkworms within. The climate of Northeast India is warm and humid and favors Eri culture. It takes about 30 days for the worms to grow to full size, after which it starts spinning the cocoon, which takes about 15 days. It is key to note that the Eri silkworm spins short segments of filament. These raw silk filaments have a natural coating called sericin.
Once the moths depart, the cocoons are cooked in boiling water with soap, which removes the gum- like secretion and also softens the cocoons. They are then pressed into small cakes akin to cotton pads and left to dry before the yarn is spun. The process is akin to the spinning of wool. Spinning is labor-intensive because the short filaments often get tangled and knotted and have to be sorted by hand, twisted and then spun, like in cotton or wool.
Spinning is done on hand looms, fly shuttle looms, or even power looms. Rural areas still rely on floor looms but are now slowly shifting to the more advanced Flying 8’ looms. While rearing silkworms involves the whole family, the women folk usually do the spinning and weaving.
Once spun, the fabric is dyed using plant-based or chemical dyes. Several rural regions use local dyes made from the barks of trees, vegetables, fruits, plant pigments, etc. If not dyed, Eri silk has a beautiful natural off-white color, the hue, tint and shade depending on various factors, such as the quality of worms, temperature etc.
A Strong and Durable Fiber
Since Eri silk is spun, it is much thicker than reeled yarn, which also gives it a soft texture. Curiously enough, it is cooling in the summer, and keeps you warm in winter.
“The texture of Eri silk fabric is fine and dense, and hence it is durable, with good tensile strength and elasticity,” says Sanjana Lunia, founder and creative head, Eris Home. “It is a staple fiber as opposed to the continuous fiber woven in other types of silks.”
The silk is as comfortable as cotton and has the warmth of wool, and can be worn all year round, making it a good fabric for apparel, furnishings and the like.
“Eri silk has gained a lot of impetus these days,” says Shailini Sheth Amin, founder, MORALFIBRE. “Eri silk masks are extremely comfortable. In spite of the pandemic and drastically reduced sales, we find that there is a lot of interest in our buyers from India and abroad.”