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Monday, August 7, 2017

Hand Tex 2017 ~ not all silk extraction is by killing moths !!

Hand-Tex 2017 ~ National Handloom expo : weavers from TamilNadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Puducherry showcasing their wares is on at Kalaivanar Arangam, Chennai.

Have you heard of Philosamia rinini?  And what groups :  Arani, Kanchipuram, Pochampalli, Dharmavaram, Benares, Mysuru and ….  the 2nd part is simple : SILK..*

A material which makes the wearer exude elegance and sophistication at first glance.  It is indeed  visual, attention-grabbing features- shiny and opulent. It has rich heritage dating back thousands of years !  it is costly and that way has added attraction of being rich.  However, of late, we hear so many people denouncing stating that for one silk saree so many hundreds of butterflies or caterpillars that would otherwise have become caterpillars had to die ! and hence they would stay away from wearing Silk – is that real or myth ?!?!?



Releasing butterflies is the latest trend at some  weddings, and other special occasions. It is believed that butterflies take dreams and wishes to the sky and bring good fortune. They are also considered a symbol of rebirth or new beginnings. This latest fad comes from South America and is spreading around the world.

Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The protein fiber of silk is composed mainly of fibroin and is produced by certain insect larvae to form cocoons. The best-known silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity (sericulture). The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fibre, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors. Silk is produced by several insects, but generally only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for textile manufacturing.  Sadly caterpillars are boiled to death and then the silk is takenout !

Silk fabric was first developed in ancient China dating back to 3630 BC; legend gives credit for developing silk to a Chinese empress, Leizu (Hsi-Ling-Shih, Lei-Tzu). Silks were originally reserved for the Emperors of China for their own use and gifts to others, but spread gradually through Chinese culture and trade both geographically and socially, and then to many regions of Asia.  Silk has a long history in India.  Called ‘Pattu’  in southern parts of India,  employing wild silk threads from native silkworm species, existed in South Asia during the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. India is the second largest producer of silk in the world after China.

There are four types of natural silk which are commercially known and produced in the world.  Among them mulberry silk is the most important and contributes as much as 90 per cent of world production, therefore, the term "silk" in general refers to the silk of the mulberry silkworm. Three other commercially important types fall into the category of non-mulberry silks namely: Eri silk; Tasar silk; and Muga silk.  There are also other types of non-mulberry silk, which are mostly wild and exploited in Africa and Asia, are Anaphe silk, Fagara silk, Coan silk, Mussel silk and Spider silk.



This is no post on mulberry silk but the live moths;  live caterpillars that were on display at Kalaivanar Arangam this day.  .. .. and the man incharge of this stall with patience explained that these are not real butterflies, have a shorter life (they do not get killed); they reproduce, caterpillars emerge out of their cocoons (reared) then grow to become a full insect, mate, reproduce and die.  As they emerge out, the cocoon otherwise of no use to the insect is then used for production of silk – and hence has no stigma !!. 

Eri silk from North East India - belong to either of two species namely Samia ricini and Philosamia ricini.  Also called Castor silkworm it  is a domesticated one reared on castor oil plant leaves to produce a white or brick-red silk popularly known as Eri silk. Since the filament of the cocoons spun by these worms is neither continuous nor uniform in thickness, the cocoons cannot be reeled and, therefore, the moths are allowed to emerge and the pierced cocoons are used for spinning to produce the Eri silk yarn.  The fascination towards eri clothes among the folk life of Assam and the North-east can easily be gauged from an old Assamese proverb (“dair päni, erir käni”) which implies that while curd cools the eri clothe warms up a person.  The name “Eri” is derived from an assamese word “Era” the castor plant. This originally wild silk-moth in India, the Eri Silkmoth (Samia ricini)is now fully domesticated and used mainly in the north eastern parts of the country.

The earliest reference to Eri silk culture in India is documented in 1779, and Eri silk was long called “Assam silk”. The larvae feed mainly on leaves of Castor (Ricinus communis), but have a number of alternate host plants such as Kesseru (Heteropanax fragrans), Cassava or Topioca (Manihot exculata) and a few other plants species Eri silk cocoons cannot be reeled because the cocoons are collected only after the moth emerges out, leaving a hole in the cocoon, that breaks the continuity of the silk filament. The cocoons are therefore subjected to spinning either by hand  / spinning wheel or by machine (mill-spun). Products made out of coarse hand spun eri silk yarns were mostly of thick / coarse quality fabric suitable for limited usage like gents and ladies shawl. Today, with the advent of technology, company like fabric plus spins eri spun silk as fine as Nm210, that enables to broaden the application range to a multiple dimension. Eri silk is now used as one of the most sustainable, low impact, high social impact fibre to produce fabrics and has become  very popular amongst those who practice absolute non-violence and do not use any product obtained by killing any living creature. Buddhist monks in India, Bhutan, Nepal, China, Japan prefer this silk due to its cruelty-free process.

Miles away, the artist Damien Hirst came  under fire after it emerged that more than 9,000 butterflies died as part of an art work in his latest exhibition. A few years back, visitors to the exhibit at the Tate Modern in London observed the insects close-up as they flew, rested, and fed on bowls of fruit. But whilst the work, In and Out of Love, was praised by many art critics when it featured in the gallery’s Hirst retrospective it was to land  the artist in a row with the RSPCA. By some accounts,   more than 9,000 butterflies died during the 23 weeks that the exhibition was open. Each week it was replenished with approximately 400 live butterflies to replace those that died – some of them trodden underfoot, others injured when they landed on visitors’ clothing and were brushed off ~ and Western World would often run campaigns to tell the World that elephants and other animals are being treated cruelly in India.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
2nd Aug 2017.


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