Looking for Three Silks

by - Sunday, December 27, 2009

Assam: Land of the Golden Silk - Part 1
(Our 2008 visit to Assam in search of three types of silk)

Assam is known to many as the world's largest tea growing region and the source of Assam tea. It could have been a pilgrimage for us, but we are committed coffee drinkers. Instead we know Assam as the site of three types of silk.

The silks we are looking for are often called “wild” silks. The term generally separates other moths from Bombyx mori. B. mori is the silkworm that most people think of when they think about silk. After millennia of domestication B. mori lacks the ability to fly, has no fear of humans or predators, and cannot survive outside the domestic environment. The moth has been selectively bred to increase the length and quality of the filament.

We are looking for tussar, eri and Muga. In previous trips to Orissa we have visited sites of tussar (tussah) cultivation. The fibers are naturally a browny-gold colour that sets them apart from most other silks. The colour is tantalizingly close to metalic, especially when the warps are on the loom. In Orissa, fabrics woven from tussar are often calendered by hand with large beaters. This gives the finished fabric more of a sheen. Video showing both the weaving and calendaring of tussar silk fabric in Orissa made its way into Tana Bana: Widom of the Loom.

[Above: tussar silk moths photographed in Orissa]

We are hopeful to see the tussar moths again. We are also looking for eri silk. Even though the eri moth Philosamia cynthia ricini is fully domesticated it is often grouped together with other wild silks. The last type of silk we are tracking is called Muga and among sericultures it is legendary.

We arrived in Kolkata at the end of Diwali. Driving from the airport, the highway median is curtained in fairy lights. In the perenial misty-gloom they add a surreal overtone to the already surreal experience of entering India. We arrive in the dark and before it is light we depart again for Guwahati. We are keen and anxious to begin. Our plane is delayed a short time and we are already worried about loosing the day which we have fully booked with appointments and meetings.

We have elected to drive directly out of Guwahati for Boko. It is the morning of October 30, 2008. We are not certain what if anything made us choose this route. We could have just as easily decided to explore the local markets and try to find some of the silks we were seeking. Perhaps the delay of our plane has made us want to focus on the silk farmers. We didn't go to the markets and for us it was very fortunate. A series of bomb blasts ripped through the markets and for the rest of our visit we felt the shadow of these terrible events.

The full story of the Assam portion of this trip appears in the excellent magazine Wild Fibers (Fall 2009).

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