Eri silk - The ethical and sustainable fibre
What is Eri silk - and what sets it apart from other silks? This article will share the insights and highlights of making the Eri silk scarfs of Hymness Studios.
Eri silk, which origins in the northeast Indian region of Assam, begins as wild silk and is often referred to as the fabric of peace or fabric of humanity, as it is processed without killing the silkworm. The humid climate of Northeast India - where the Eri moth is a native species, is favourable to the cultivation of Eri moths.
Eri silk is one of the three wild silks from Assam. Commonly known as Assam silk, Muga, Eri and Pat are three types of silk produced only in Assam. In this article, however, I'll keep my focus on Eri silk as this is the silk I work with now.
The Eri silkworm builds its cocoon with several-short-threads and a small hole at the top, making it possible for the evolved moth to leave the cocoon without damaging the threads' natural quality. This makes killing unnecessary as the cocoon can be harvested once empty, making the fibre sustainable by securing a continuous life cycle.
Eri silkmoths (and moths in general) do not have mouthparts and will die from starvation shortly after hatching. However, in the short period from leaving the cocoon, the adult females lay 3-400 new eggs, securing the new generations of silkworms.
Many silks are generally associated with a cruel process that results in the premature death of the silkworm. The reason is that the evolved silkworm will damage the long-single-thread cocoon when hatching. Therefore, the silkworm needs to be boiled before it's ready to fly to preserve the precious single-thread in all its length.
The entire process is carried out by the local indigenous tribal communities, creating economic opportunities based on the ancestral cultural knowledge of forest-dependent families in Assam, home to some of the world's most beautiful wild silks and natural dyes. The inherited and traditional processes of cultivating, spinning, weaving and dying are carried out by women in the communities as a part of their daily lives.
Compared to the most commonly used silks, Eri silk is a short-staple fibre with a similar structure and appearance to wool. Because of this, it must be spun using the same method as wool and can't be reeled into a fine uniform filament yarn (long continuous yarn). This sets the Eri silk fibre apart from other silks.
Spinning by hand requires a light touch ingrained in muscle memory and culture. The spinners use a combination of pedal-powered spinning wheels and the traditional drop spindle technique. Mainly a skill preserved by mothers, this role offers an alternative income to women of all ages.
Though every piece is carefully inspected, minor imperfections will always be a natural part of handmade products. This fact sets it apart from a machine-made scarf, which will appear more perfect and even.
The dye knowledge of the indigenous communities of Assam is as valuable as their weaving. Dyeing with plants such as Indigo and Sappon has its own rich story in this part of India, and continuing the methods and traditions is an essential part of its preservation.
More than thirty different natural dye materials are available from the local woodlands of Assam, including leaves, seeds, roots and vines. The locals are dependent on preserving the natural balance - it is their livelihood. Following traditions, they only use sustainable, regenerative plants that can be re-planted on forest land and avoid harvesting any materials that cause harm to the living plants.
All processes are done by hand without using toxic chemicals, requiring more time, patience and inherited knowledge and expertise. The colour palette includes a wide range of colours, combining natural dyes such as turmeric, lac, Indigo, Indian madder, teak, Sappon and iron shells.
Once dyed, the yarn is handwoven into the fabric, with the artisans using various traditional techniques passed down through generations. In Assam, every house has a loom, and every woman is a weaver. This sense of community is at the heart of all we do, and the weavers take considerable pride in creating these luxurious handwoven fabrics.
Using hand looms allows for greater freedom of creativity with designs without the constraints of uniform power looms. This focus on handcraft enables the weaver to provide technical fabrics - from plain weave to bespoke materials with extra weft techniques.
Once the handwoven fabric is finished, the printers start block printing each piece. You can compare block printing with potato printing - I think we have all had a childhood experience doing potato prints on paper.
The block printing process varies slightly across different crafts. However, the majority of steps are the same. Firstly, wooden blocks are cut, and the desired design is carved. These wooden blocks have a handle at the top so that the printer can move the block around – dipping the block in colour, lift & print them on the cloth.
The most common used technique is to print the outline or border first, and then the print is done repeatedly from outward to inward. Block printing is entirely manual, which makes it challenging, requiring precision, artistry, and a great deal of patience.
Characteristics of Eri silk
Silk fibres are known for their many excellent characteristics, and the Eri silk fibre is no exception. Eri silk even has many similarities with wool, and its combined features are durable, soft and moisture absorbent fibre.
Eri silk is more opaque and textured than traditional glossy silk and has a somewhat woolly texture. And finally, it has excellent hypoallergenic and thermo-regulating properties, making it the ideal companion throughout the seasons, even for the most delicate skins.
Though every piece is carefully inspected, minor imperfections can set it apart from a machine-made scarf.
In some ways, the human imperfections connect you to the designers and makers - the rural artisans in remote areas of India, whom you are helping by being a proud owner of an Eri silk scarf. A scarf that only will get softer and shinier with every use...