Traversing a scenic silk trail

Traversing a scenic silk trail

“Discovery of silk is as fascinating as its shimmer and fall,” says Meera Iyer, one of the organisers of the heritage tour, “Handcrafted in Karnataka: The Making of its Silk.” As we embarked on a silk trail to unravel the entire process of silk-making in Bengaluru’s backyard, we realised each village has a yarn to spin, waiting to be unravelled in the seemingly innocuous small towns like Vijayapura and Sidlaghatta.

Our silk trail commenced with the grainage. The owner, Manjunath showed us the cocoons kept under temperature-controlled conditions till the pupae emerge from them as moths after about a week.

Earthern pots filled with water are suspended from the ceiling to maintain the cool temperature inside the room. I was impressed by this indigenous technology, which has proved effective for them. Mating takes place here and eggs are then left to hibernate in a cool place away from the world of colour and sunshine. The eggs are then taken out of storage and incubated. Little worms that hatch from the eggs are then shifted to a larger facility where they are fed tender mulberry leaves thrice a day. The lush farms we saw grow mulberry to feed the tiny worms.

From cocoon to saree

In a week’s time, they hatch into tiny silkworms, which are then transferred to large flat basket ‘trays’ that are constantly filled with fresh mulberry leaves. It was fascinating to watch the wriggling silkworms munching the leaves. The tiny silkworm has an incredibly ravenous appetite and then begins to gorge nonstop for 25-30 days, shedding its skin about four times along the way.

Then begins the cocoon or pupal stage of its life, when it begins a nonstop
spinning process that culminates only when it is ensconced in what looks like a neat pale yellow bundle. A day after the cocoons are formed they are transported to the cocoon markets.

We then headed to the silk cocoon market at Sidlaghatta. Farmers bring in heaps of light yellow cocoons, which looked like little wads of coloured cotton and stack them up filling the space around.

As we entered the auction house, the mood was frenzied with auction agents rushing from pile to pile and yelling out the price of each. The pace is quick – not more than two minutes are spent on a pile and the cocoons vanish from the market in a jiffy. Once the pile is sold and weighed, reelers take possession of the cocoons and the buyers carry bundles of them to the reeling units. We gaped in amazement at the cyclists as they precariously balanced large bundles of cocoons on their heads. The bundles sometimes weigh a startling 50kg.

At the manually-operated reeling units in Sidlaghatta, the bad quality cocoons are separated and the remaining ones are subjected to steam. Before the pupa develops into a moth and emerges from the cocoon, the cocoons are immersed in boiling water to loosen the threads to facilitate easy extraction of silk filament and the thread is sent for reeling. I learnt that it is a necessary procedure to extract the single unbroken strand of yarn in each cocoon. I found the stench of steamed silk worms a strain on my olfactory senses. During this process, the worms which have entered the pupa stage perish.
The idea is to produce exceptionally high-quality silk. If the pupae turn into moths and emerge from the cocoon, the silk strand breaks resulting in multiple segments. The reeled raw silk then goes through a ‘twisting’ process which adds strength to the yarn and helps it withstand the stresses and strains of weaving.

Silk yarn spun after the moth emerges from the cocoon is known as Ahimsa silk. It refers to the way the silk is extracted. In this process, the silk thread is extracted only after the worm matures and breaks through the cocoon to fly out as a moth. This is followed by mating and the female lays three to four hundred eggs after which both the male and female die. The breaking of the cocoons by the moth necessitate more knots to make the yarn, giving it a coarser texture.

In the silk industry, nothing goes waste. Strands of wasted yarn are used to weave spun silk and dead pupae are exported to South Korea where they are a popular delicacy.
Interestingly, India is the only country in the world that makes all four commercial varieties of silk – Mulberry, Tussar, Moga and Eri, and Karnataka is India’s largest producer of silk.

The origin of royal fabric

Sharing some tidbits, Meera says, “The genesis of silk can be traced back to a Chinese Empress, who stumbled upon tiny worms feeding on mulberry leaves while ambling around in her imperial garden. Later, she discovered a shimmering mass of yarn when a cocoon fell into her cup of hot water. The secret was guarded zealously for 3,000 years by the Chinese. Some bravehearts even ventured into China to find out the secret. Another interesting feature is that silk could be even older because it was also discovered recently at Indus Valley sites.”

After having a good lunch at a farm house, we drove down to the dyeing unit. From the reeling units, bundles of silk yarn are sent to the dyeing units. Before weaving, the raw silk is degummed and dyed into desired colours. The dyeing unit is a riot of colours with the dyed yarn left to dry in the open.

From here, the yarn journeys to the looms in various weaving units – the final stage in the making of silk. Although modern power looms are common now, hundreds of weavers all across Karnataka still work on antiquated handlooms-heirlooms to create spectacular sarees in varied designs and hues.

When I looked at the silken fabrics, I thought of the sacrifice of thousands of silkworms, the small houses, the one-man units and the sweat and toil of a large multitude of the rural populace for their proverbial daily bread. The entire trip was indeed an incredible learning experience!

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