Silk has always been the fabric of emperors and the aristocracy, the rich and the famous, so coveted in ancient times that the trade route along which it travelled from Asia to Europe was named after it. But this most luxurious of textiles comes at a huge price as it results in the death of hundreds of thousands of silkworms, rather, their pupae. That is why, in times of conscious fashion, where the choices behind the clothes we wear are equally important, silk is associated with ‘violence’.
But for those who can’t do without their silks, there’s an alternative, Eri Silk. It also has a variant called ‘Ahimsa Silk’ or ‘Fabric of Peace’. Traditionally spun in Assam, Meghalaya and other areas in North-East India, Eri Silk fabrics don't harm the silkworm or its pupae.
Traditional silk requires the cocoons of the silkworm to be dropped into boiling water or blasted with hot steam to kill the pupae inside before they mature into moths. The silken skeins naturally spun around the cocoon are then extracted and spun into silk yarn. This ensures that the silk is unbroken.
In contrast, Eri Silk is made from the cocoons of the Philosamia ricini silkworm, whose cocoon is naturally open-ended. When it is ready to emerge, the mature moth does not have to pierce the cocoon, thus breaking the natural silk encasing it. When it emerges through an opening at one end and flies away, the empty cocoon is used to produce the 'Ahimsa Silk'.
Eri Silk is a rich legacy of the textile culture of Assam. We don’t know much about the origins of Eri Silk spinning but, traditionally, rural and tribal women here have been processing, spinning and weaving it as part of their daily lives.
The term ‘Eri Silk’ is derived from the Assamese word ‘era’, which means ‘castor’, as the Philosamia ricini silkworm feeds on castor leaves. Also, the humid climate in North-East India is very favourable for Eri culture. Apart from India’s East and North-East region, this silkworm is also reared in Japan and China.
– But there’s a twist in the Eri story. The protein-rich pupae produced during Eri culture are eaten as a delicacy by tribals in Assam!
In the process of Eri silk harvesting, the silkworm lives off castor leaves for around 30 days, till it is mature. It then starts to spin a cocoon, which takes around 15 days. The pupae grow in the cocoon and once they mature, they are sometimes taken out of the cocoon, to be cooked. The empty cocoons are then degummed by immersing them in boiling water, made into small cakes resembling cotton pads, and then dried. Once dry, the silk is then spun into yarn.
The silk is used by the indigenous people of Assam to make chaddars (wraps) for their own use. But the market for Eri Silk is gradually expanding. Due to its unique thermal properties – the fabric remains warm in winter and cool in summer – apparel made from Eri Silk can be worn all year round. The silk yarn is also strong and durable, and is being used in fashion fabrics.
Stoles, shawls, saris and home furnishing products like curtains, bed covers, cushion covers, wall hangings and quilts are being fashioned out of Eri Silk. There are many local organisations that are working closely with the tribes engaged in Eri culture. Our partner platform Peepul Tree, which brings together the best of Indian crafts and arts, has tied up with Elephant Country, an organisation working with the local community in Assam. Elephant Country produces Eri Silk stoles, which are dyed using natural elements such as lac, tea waste, indigo, wood, onion skin and turmeric. You can explore a beautiful range of Eri Silk stoles at Peepul Tree made by artisans from Assam.
It is amazing how such a tiny but unique creature is worming its way out of Assam’s indigenous culture and into the closets and homes of people across India.