Silk – Queen of Textiles

silk making in India

The material ‘Silk’ always spells luxury, elegance, class and comfort. Everyone loves this shimmering fibre of unparalleled grandeur from the moment Chinese Empress Shiling Ti discovered it in her tea cup. It withstood many a daunting challenges from other natural and artificial fibres and yet, remained the undisputed Queen of Textiles since centuries.

Exquisite qualities of Silk saris like the natural sheen, inherent affinity for dyes and vibrant colours, high absorbance, light weight, resilience and excellent drape etc. have made silk, the irresistible and inevitable companion of the eve, all over the world.

Silk Weaving Traditions in India

Associated with ceremonial rites of ancient India, silk has been a highly revered fabric. From times immemorial, silk has been a much sought after fabric by not only the common man but also kings and queens. Though today we see silks mainly in saris, in early days they used to be part of royal robes. It continues to be a popular and widely used material because of its softness, smoothness, luster and its graceful and sensuous folds which lend themselves exquisitely to designing.

Silk saris are often created with zari (fabric woven with thin gold and silver wires) work on them. The main silk weaving centers are Banaras, Surat, Chander, Murshidabad, Mysore, Assam, Kanchepuram, Tanjore, Dharmavaram etc.

How Silk is made in India

Silk is made of proteins secreted in the fluid state by a caterpillar, popularly known as ‘silkworm’. These silkworms feed on the selected food plants and spin cocoons as a ‘protective shell’ to perpetuate the life. Silkworm has four stages in its life cycle – egg, caterpillar, pupa and moth. The life cycle at the cocoon stage is interfered to obtain the silk, a continuous filament of commercial importance, used in weaving of the fabric.

Types of Silk

  • Mulberry – The bulk of the commercial silk produced in the world comes from this variety and often silk generally refers to mulberry silk. Mulberry silk comes from the silkworm, ‘Bombyx mori L’ which solely feeds on the leaves of mulberry plant. These silkworms are completely domesticated and reared indoors. In India, the major mulberry silk producing states are Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Jammu & Kashmir which together accounts for 92 % of country’s total mulberry raw silk production.
  • Tasar – Tasar (Tussah) is copperish colour, coarse silk mainly used for furnishings and interiors. It is less lustrous than mulberry silk, but has its own feel and appeal. Tasar silk is generated by the silkworm, ‘Antheraea mylitta’ which mainly thrive on the food plants Asan and Arjun. The rearings are conducted in nature on the trees in the open. In India, tasar silk is mainly produced in the states of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Orissa, besides Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Tasar culture is the main stay for many a tribal community in India.
  • Muga – This golden yellow colour silk is prerogative of India and the pride of Assam state. It is obtained from semi-domesticated multivoltine silkworm, ‘Antheraea assamensis’. These silkworms feed on the aromatic leaves of Som and Soalu plants and are reared on trees similar to that of tasar. Muga culture is specific to the state of Assam and an integral part of the tradition and culture of that state. The muga silk, an high value product is used in products like sarees, mekhalas, chaddars, etc.
  • Eri -Also known as Endi or Errandi, Eri is a multivoltine silk spun from open-ended cocoons, unlike other varieties of silk. Eri silk is the product of the domesticated silkworm, ‘Philosamia ricini’ that feeds mainly on castor leaves. Ericulture is a household activity practiced mainly for protein rich pupae, a delicacy for the tribal. Resultantly, the eri cocoons are open-mouthed and are spun. The silk is used ingeniously for preparation of chaddars (wraps) for own use by these tribals. In India, this culture is practiced mainly in the north-eastern states and Assam. It is also found in Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa.

Grading a Silk

Unlike, cotton which is graded in counts, silk is graded in ‘deniers’. In cotton the lesser the count the thicker the material and the higher the count the thinner the material. While in silk it is the opposite with the lesser denier yearn producing a finer silk and a thicker ‘denier’ producing a heavier silk.
Today silk is not just restricted to saris. A wide range of ladies’ and men’s wear like dupattas, garments, fabrics, caps, handkerchiefs, scarves, dhotis, turbans, shawls, ghagras or lehengas, and even quilts, bedcovers, cushions, table-cloths curtains are made of silk.

Silk Sarees in India

  • Banaras Silk

Banaras is one of the leading silk sari producing centers of India. It is known for its heavy gold-silver brocades. Hair thin wires of gold and silver are obtained by heating the metal and passing it through minute holes. These wires are then used with silk yarn for weaving. The Amru silk brocades of Banaras are not only famous in India but also abroad. Jamvar, Navrangi (nine colors), Jamdani etc are other brocade types from the range of Banarasi saris. In the ancient time, Banaras was famous for the weaving of cotton saree and dress materials, but slowly switched over to silk weaving, during the Moghal period around 14th century weaving of brocades with intricate designs using gold & Silver threads was the speciality of Banaras.

  • Patola Silk

Patola silk saris are the pride of Gujarat. These saris are created by using the resist dying technique. There are two types of Patola saris. The Rajkot patola is only vertically-resist dyed (single ikat), while the Patan patola is horizontally-resist dyed (double ikat). The yarn is resist dyed before it is used in weaving. Patola saris are known for their flaming bright colors and geometric designs interspersed with folk motifs. The zari of the sari has a sheen which is muted as it is woven in the twill weave. Diagonal borders in bright colours simulate the effect of enameling on gold. Some Aashavali saris which are for more informal occasions do not have such a spectacular use of zari.

  • Kosa(Tussar) Silk

Tussar silk or Kosa silk is valued for its purity and texture as it is available naturally in shades of gold-pale, dark, honey, tawny, beige, creamy, etc. Tussar silk saris are considered auspicious. It is a special variety of silk, as the cocoons are raised on Arjun and Sal trees. They come in a range of colors and are decorated with a variety of natural motifs. Tussar silk is produced in Maharashtra and Bihar. It is also used for making home decor items like bed covers, cushions and other garments like salwar kurtas and suits.

  • Paithani Silk

Maharashtra is known for its Paithani silk saris, which generally come in kum-kum colors in combination with a contrasting color. Paithani are generally decorated with the gold dot or coin motif. Till date, real Paithani work is hand woven in pure silk & silver. Intricate designs, traditional creativity and painstaking workmanship combine to form this unique cloth, where a weaver can weave only one inch per day. Color thread is woven by hand. Thus pallu, peacocks, parrots and other design look like painting on silk. A real Paithani by looking at back of pallu, it look same as front side.

  • Chanderi Silk

The state of Madhya Pradesh is famous for Chanderi, Maheshwari and Tussar silk saris. Chanderi sari is known for soft colors and the harmonious balance between the border and the body of the sari. These saris are also known for their contrasting colors and the depiction of animal and human figures on them. The colors of Chanderi silk come from both natural as well as chemical processes. Currently, chemical dyes are preferred due to their fast-acting quality. Traditional looms are still used as the primary means of production. These include pitlooms, dobby, and jacquard looms. The hand-woven silk has a light, sheer quality that sets it apart from textiles produced en masse in factories.

  • Bomkai Sambalpuri Silk

Silk Bomkai Sambalpuri saris from Orissa are also in single and double ikat. In contrast to the ikats of Gujarat, these saris are sober in color and decorated with curved forms. The pallu of these saris have floral and animal patterns on them. Sambalpuri textile is essentially handloom. It is fabricated using tie and dye method. The craftsman conceptualizes the design, draws it and according to the design, he colors the yarn, all by hand. The fabrics once colored cannot be bleached. The fabric may get thin and gradually damage but the colour still does not fade. The fabric is both silk and cotton.

  • Balucheri Silk

Murshidabad in West Bengal is the home of the famous Baluchari sari. The Baluchar technique of weaving uses untwisted silk thread for weaving brocades. The pallav of this sari has patterns that resemble miniature paintings. The sari has large flowing kalka motifs in the centre surrounded by narrow ornamental borders. These are framed by a series of figural motifs worked in rows around the kalkas. These motifs are woven diagonally and are worked in four alternating colours, white, blue, yellow, red and green on a shaded background. The motifs are entirely in silver zari.

  • Kanjeevaram Silk

Kanjeevaram silk sari is a magnificent creation of the craftsmen living in a small town, Kanchi (Kanchipuram), situated near the Bangalore city of South India. The saree has been named after the town in which it is produced.  The silk used in the creation of Kanjivaram saree is extremely fine as well as durable and is one of the most popular forms of silk in the state of Tamil Nadu. The bold and bright color of the sari is very much preferred by the South Indian women, whose trousseau remains incomplete without this amazing outfit. The sheer magnitude of textures, colors and designs of Kanjivaram silk saris of India is incredible. Simple saris can be prepared in about 10 to 12 days. However, decorative ones require up to 20 days of workmanship. Kanjeevarams are expensive and can cost anywhere between Rs. 2000 to Rs. 50,000. The cost of the saree depends upon the amount of zari intertwined with the silk. The more the zari work, the more expensive the sari will be.