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A silken affair

Ninoshka Alvares-Delaney

With its shimmering appearance and smooth texture, silk has been enticing Indians for the longest time. In fact, India ranks as the world’s largest consumer of silk and the second largest producer of silk in the world after China. Known as resham in eastern and north India and pattu in the southern parts of India, silk has a long history in the subcontinent dating back to the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Silk is considered a symbol of royalty and historically silk was used primarily by the upper classes. The tradition of wearing silk sarees for marriages and other auspicious ceremonies is a custom in the north eastern state of Assam. In Assam, three different types of silk are produced, collectively called Assam Silk. These are muga, eri and pat silk. Muga, the golden silk, and eri are produced by silkworms that are native only to Assam.

Muga Silk: Muga silk or the golden silk is not only nature’s gift to Assam, but also a symbol of rich Assamese culture. It represents the brilliance of traditional attire of the region. A dazzling traditional dress called the mekhela chador is woven with muga silk and is one of the most expensive gifts an Assamese young man can pick to win the heart of his woman. Today, the cost of muga silk is so high that for a middle-class woman in Assam it has become a prized possession, just as her gold ornaments.

The most significant characteristic of this silk is its golden bright hue. The word muga is derived from the Assamese word meaning yellow. It is superior in every respect in comparison to other silks available and much more durable, which makes it one of the costliest silks available all over the world. An original piece of work can cost anywhere between `10,000 to `1,50,000. The shine of the fabric is said to improve after each wash making it a product that will last a lifetime.

Muga silk which is mainly produced by the Garo community of Assam, is produced from cocoons of the silkworm Antherea Assamensis, endemic to Assam. These silkworms feed on leaves of the som and soalu plants. The time taken to weave a single muga silk saree is roughly two months, from rearing the silkworm to obtaining the finished product. The actual weaving process takes about one week to 10 days to complete. Assam received the Geographical Indication (GI) tag for muga silk in 2007, which is one of the surest ways of identifying a genuine muga product. A golden yellow base colour is the main selling point of this silk. Additional colours are added via embroidery and zari work to make the product more attractive. Traditional motifs are always geometrical in shape.

Eri Silk: Eri silk comes from the caterpillar of Samia ricini and Philosamia ricini, found in northeast India. The name eri is derived from the Assamese word era which means castor, as the silkworm feeds on castor plants. Eri silk is also known as endi or errandi. Since the silk is obtained without killing the silkworm, it is also referred to as ahimsa silk or peace silk. This is one of the reasons that the Buddhist monks of India, China, Nepal, and Japan prefer this silk of non-violent origin.

Eri silk is a staple fibre unlike other silks which are continuous filaments. Eri silk is distinguished by its typical dense and coarse texture, matt appearance, and dull golden yellow sheen. It is very strong, durable, and elastic. Being darker and heavier than other silks, it blends with wool and cotton. Eri is not as expensive as the other categories of silks produced, so it is also known as the poor person’s silk. Valued for its strength and thermal insulating properties which makes it warm in winter and cool in summer, this silk is mainly used to make shawls, quilts, wraps and bedspreads. Nowadays even sarees are being produced with this silk.

Pat Silk: Pat silk is the mulberry silk produced in Assam. It is produced by the Bombyx textor silkworms which feed on mulberry leaves. It received great patronage from the Ahom dynasty (1228-1826) at a later period of their rule. The silk has a natural white or off-white tint and is known for its brilliant sheen, glossy texture and durability. Pat silk, like other Assam silks, is used in products like the mekhela chador and other textiles.

Until next time, stay stylish!

(Writer is a fashion designer and is available at www.ninoshka.co.in)

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