Silken tales...

The Silk Route is in the news again, albeit with a modern connotation. According to recent media reports, China is in talks with a host of countries in its neighbourhood to rebuild the Silk Road connecting it with Europe through Central Asian countries and trade corridors like Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar

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The Dragon Country is also keen to set up free trade zones to link its coastal areas with countries in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, in an effort to breathe life into the ancient ‘maritime silk road’ that linked China with the region.

Let’s rediscover the textile that has charmed the world. It’s the Chinese who perfected the art of weaving silk and managed to keep it a secret from the world for centuries. Legend says silk stepped out of the country clandestinely around 300 AD and soon spread its strands afar.

Down the centuries, silk has been valued for being unrivalled in every aspect, from procurement to production. It’s been an enviable commodity, leading to intercontinental commerce via the famed Silk Route and the reason also for the Silk Wars to control its trade.

Sensuous and luxurious, silk is nature’s splendid gift. It’s silk that has presented us the chiffons, satins, velvets and crepes, as well as a host of other richly decorative textiles from amongst which it was the birth of brocade that revolutionised the world. It travelled wide, dressing not just monarchs and aristocracy, but gods and temples too.

Queen of textiles

Brocade was perhaps the first successful Sino-Indian collaboration! While many a legend exists on the various routes it took to reach here, they all concur on the fact that brocade did journey from China to the subcontinent and comfortably settled here, happily adapting itself to local requirements to become the queen of textiles.

Its jewel tones and richness made it most desirable. Brocade was a must for royal apparels and held an enviable pride of place in other wardrobes. It was the choice of textile for dressing ceremonial occasions too. If a textile could spell lavishness, this was it. Through the centuries, it has retained its top spot and continues to be an indulgence, valued and treasured by all who own it.

Down the ages

Brocade is woven by merging an additional and irregular weft which generates an embossed impression on sections of the fabric, lending it that luxurious feel. The raised areas in the pattern almost appear as if embroidered, reflecting the wizardry of weavers who toil to weave reams of this fine fabric. Brocade is fundamentally woven in silk or cotton, or a mix of both filaments. To give certain types of brocade further richness, metallic wires of gold or silver (or imitation now) are interspersed in the weave.

There are more than a handful varieties of brocade, but sitting on top of the pack are kimkhab and tanchoi. Before we explore their world, let’s go back to the bylanes of history and trace their fabled voyage to ‘Hindoostan’, where they docked centuries ago.

Kincob, kamkhwab, cammocca, camaca, camocas or kamkha, down the ages these nomenclatures, a mix of French, Persian and Spanish terms, have been names of the fabric we know as kimkhab, which simply means gold-dream. The origin of this clutch of expressions is believed to be the Chinese kim-hoa, which means gold-flower.

In fact, in kim-hoa lies the essence of kimkhab, as it’s the immense employment of gold thread which makes the fabric stand apart. Kimkhab is among the best quality brocades, and as with other forms of silk-weaving techniques, this arrived on our shores from China via Indian maritime traders, around the end of the 18th century.

The tale of tanchoi is lovelier. According to the most popular legend, around the middle of the 19th century, three Parsi brothers from Surat were sent to China to learn the art of weaving silk. On their return, they combined Indian and Chinese techniques and patterns to produce the gorgeous tanchoi.

Another school of thought says it was Chinese traders who brought woven silk brocade for sale to India and discovering potential here transported three weavers of the Choi family who began making fabric to suit local taste. Thus the name tanchoi or fabric made by teren (meaning ‘three’ in Gujarati, that got shrunk to ‘tan’) Choi brothers.

Both textiles initially flourished in Ahmedabad and Surat, the cities being closest to the main trading ports on the Arabian Sea. They had the firm support of royalty, and weavers, like magicians, wove magic.

Down the centuries, patronage dwindled in the region and craftspersons began looking at other options. Across the country, weaving hubs were usually royal capitals or temple towns. The holy city of Benaras (or Varanasi) had always been a well-known centre of weaving, and over time the brocade industry re-located there and continues to be a major revenue gatherer for the region. Aurangabad was the other direction some weavers took.

“Under the early Mughals, India’s handicraft skills reached a high level of perfection. Mastercraftsmen from all over the world were attracted by the wealth of craftsmanship in Hindustan. Many visited, while some settled down here. Their arrival added to the already-rich range of skills, techniques and designs of the Indian craftspersons who were so adept at their craft that they learnt new skills in a short time and soon surpassed the original weavers,” says Jasleen Dhamija, internationally-renowned textile historian and author of several works on living traditions and crafts.

“This is clearly visible in weaving extra-weft silk textiles as the brocades like kimkhab and tanchoi, velvet, himroo etc. This technique was not native to India but was mastered well and soon we became suppliers to the world,” she adds with pride.  

Woven dreams

“Yeh khwabon ke duniya se hai (It’s from the world of dreams),” sighs Mohd Shajada, and gently running his hand on the fabric asserts, “Aisa kapda khwab ke siva kya ho sakta hai (Such fabric can only be but a dream).” Shajada is a weaver from the winding lanes of Pili Kothi, Benaras, a cluster synonymous with producing some of the finest yards of brocade.

Explaining the uniqueness of kimkhab, his colleague Abbul Hasan of Chittanpura, Emli Talle, another famous location of weavers says, “Metallic wire is added as an extra weft on the loom. The combination of weaving two exclusive filaments, silk and gold (imitation), makes kimkhab the stuff of dreams!” What’s the indication of true brocade?

The reverse end of the fabric has groups of loose strands, or floats, beneath the embossed design. These are usually clipped or left as is. Another sign is its width. Pure brocades are woven on handlooms and hence not more than a metre wide. Owing to the painstaking processes involved, it’s produced in fixed lengths, usually around 12-15 m.

Weaving tanchoi is an extremely complex skill too, involving a single or double warp while the weft is of three to seven colours in a similar shade spectrum. The end result of using related hues is a radiant fabric that’s opulent to look at. It’s not the hues alone that lend brilliance to the fabric. Typically, the face of the fabric has a satin weave and small patterns are woven into the entire surface. This makes it a densely designed, heavy fabric with a delicately embossed look. Tanchoi does not have floats as the unused threads are woven into the fabric.

Strands of history

Textiles are brilliant keepers of times past. Scrutinising a fabric is akin to studying a chapter of history. Kimkhab and tanchoi too tell their stories of origin through their motifs like pagodas, fishermen, dragons, village scenes, fishes, cranes, peony flowers... all indicators of a Chinese past. Brocade’s shift to Benaras altered the patterns and Persian styling entered the fray owing to Mughal influence in the region.

The names of designs gathered a lyrical romanticism too, reflective of a unified Indo-Persian culture: dhoop-chaun (dark-light), ganga-jamuna (gold on silver), chand-tara (moon-stars), sabz-bagh (green garden), badami-chashm (almond eyes) etc.

Let’s return to silk and delve a bit into how we get this filament of fashion. The inconspicuous silkworm caterpillar is the manufacturing powerhouse of silk. It spins a cocoon for its process of metamorphosis into a moth, and it’s this temporary shelter that supplies the world with the valuable fibre.

If you ever need a reason to bow to nature, this is one. India was one of the countries where silk arrived from “Cheen” or China and immediately made a mark. “Our traditions and customs have always accorded a superlative status to silk, leading to the development of the fabric and increase of production centres,” says Dhamija.

Indian silk

Silk is classified on the basis of the silkworm, with each species producing a different filament. In India, based on the type of silkworm involved in the production, silk can broadly be categorised under three sections. The most popular and widely available variety is mulberry silk produced by the Bombyx mori L caterpillar; next is the family of tassar (or kosa) silk obtained from Antheraea mylitta and its cousins; and produced in small but significant quantity is eri silk from Samia cynthia ricini.

Each silkworm is reared under separate conditions and produces different filaments. The Bombyx mori L feeds on mulberry leaves and as this is one caterpillar that has been domesticated, or reared under specific conditions, there’s maximum production of mulberry silk in the country, the bulk coming from states of southern India.

The tassar silkworm enjoys its freedom; plucked greens are not its kind of food. Throughout life it’s found on sal, aasan and arjun trees and merrily feeds on fresh leaves. The natural environment found in the eastern states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Bihar is most conducive for the rearing of this silkworm.
As free-range silkworms produce tassar, it’s categorised as wild silk as opposed to mulberry that’s known as cultivated silk.

Its kin, Antheraea proyeli J, found in the Himalayan belt, lives on oak leaves and the filament produced is known as oak tassar. Another cousin, Antheraea assama westwood, belongs to the Brahmaputra Valley and feeds on plants native to the region. This silkworm produces the highly-prized muga tassar, the golden coloured fabric Assam is famous for.

Eri, also called endi or errandi, is also a domesticated silk and the worms are fed castor leaves. The final product is a thick yarn ranging from white to cream in colour. Unlike other silks where the filament drawn out of the cocoons is reeled, in the case of eri it needs to be handspun and the final product is thus thick and cottony in feel.

Of the three types of silk, tassar has a slightly muted lustre and is taut when compared to mulberry silk, the reason for this being the nature of its filament which in turn is related to the rearing of the silkworm. The mulberry silkworm’s thread is the finest and has the longest fibres (being a cultivated silk) amongst the varieties. Eri has nothing glossy about it, nonetheless exudes a unique character, resembling khadi.

The environs in which a silkworm is reared also plays a crucial role in determining its colour, texture and lustre. For instance, tropical tassar has shades ranging from dull copper to lustrous gold (with the golden muga being the brightest, it’s a top-of-the-line tassar) while temperate tassar is a lighter beige. Tassar silk is also a lot more textured than mulberry silk and has shorter fibres, which makes it less durable. Eri, though, on account of being handspun, is a strong fabric.

On the side

A silkworm spins about 1,000 to 1,200 m of filament when it builds its cocoon and takes around three days to do so. The amount of silk obtained from each cocoon is little as high quality silk filament needs to be continuous. The amount of usable silk, thus, in each cocoon is small; approximately 5,000 silkworms being required to produce a kilogram. During the process of reeling, the filament snaps after a certain length. The spooled filament goes into the production of the finest category of silk. The residue in the cocoon or ‘waste’ forms a variety of other silk textures that are slightly ribbed on account of shorter filament.

There are several such by-products that have made a mark for themselves in today’s market. The most well-known is matka silk that’s obtained from mulberry silk waste. The silk got its name from the process of winding the filament on an earthen pot or matka in the villages of eastern India. Tassar residue gives ghicha, katia, balkal and jhari silks.

Peace silk

To draw filament from a cocoon, the silkworm inside it has to be killed. This is done by boiling or steaming the cocoon to unloosen the filament, and then drying it in the sun. The need for this process also arises to get continuous filament, for if the larvae is allowed to turn into a moth, it damages the cocoon.

Over the past few decades, there has been a shift towards ‘peace silk’. This is silk from cocoons where the caterpillar is allowed to complete its life-cycle, transform into a moth and fly out of its cocoon.

Traditionally, many communities in India have worn ahimsa silk owing to religious restrictions. There’s more awareness about this silk now and owing to increasing demand, some forms of ‘peace tassar’ have become popular. This silk is relatively inexpensive but a tad low on durability. A truly conventional peace silk is eri, as the filament for it is drawn after the moth leaves the cocoon.

Some of the most fascinating journeys have been undertaken by textiles. Have you realised they have a lesson hidden in their weft and warp? That there is unity in diversity, and the result is almost-always harmonious. 

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