From cocoon to saree

A journey to the land of silk-makers in and around Bangalore threw up a whole lot of surprises. The trip organised by Carnelian, a company that organizes heritage tours and walks, revived memories of my class X Economics project which co-incidentally was on sericulture.

If you thought the story behind the making of exquisite silk is as fascinating as the fabric, you couldn’t be more wrong. Behind every silk saree is the sacrifice of thousands of silkworms and the sweat and toil of hundreds of men and women.

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Inside a grainage

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Stack of baskets containing cocoons

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An indigenous method of controlling temperature – An earthen pot containing water suspended from the roof.

We set off on a bright Saturday morning to Vijayapura, a town outside Bangalore. Our first stop was at a grainage. Grainages are temperature-controlled facilities where cocoons are kept under controlled temperature conditions till the pupa emerges from them as moths after about a week. The Bombyx mori moth is the key player in the making of silk in Karnataka.

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Yellow and white cocoons

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Female moths with eggs kept in a dark room.

The grainage had cocoons of two hues – cream and white. Male and female moths are allowed to mate. Mr Manjunath, the owner of the grainage mentioned that from the two varieties of cocoon they only pick the males from one and the females from another. A female lays around 400-500 eggs usually 48 hours after mating.

Eggs hatch after 8 days. In case the demand for silk is less, the eggs are stored in a refrigerator to postpone hatching.

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A mulberry cultivation

Mulberry leaves

Mulberry leaves

Young silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves

Young silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves

Little worms that hatch from the eggs are then shifted to a larger facility called the chawki where they are fed tender mulberry leaves. Cultivation of mulberry leaves and rearing of silkworms go hand in hand. The mulberry leaves are the only food of the silkworms. Worms have to be nurtured with utmost care. Feeding is done thrice a day – morning, afternoon and night.  During their life-cycle, silkworms go through four moulting phases or instars. During a moulting phase, the worms shed old skin and acquire a new one. When in the moulting stage, which lasts for almost a day, the worms should not be fed.

18- day-old silkworms

18- day-old silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves. Only the leaves are eaten and not the stems.

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Rearing silkworms is no easy task!

25-day-old silkworms

25-day-old silkworms

Cows feed on mulberry stems

Cows feed on mulberry stems

Aww!  Chomp chomp chomp after a heavy lunch

Aww! Chomp chomp chomp after a heavy lunch

When they are about 18 days old, the worms are shifted to a larger facility and are fed mature leaves. Stems of the leaves are fed to cattle.

Silkworms in a chakri

Silkworms in a chakri

Cocoons in the chakri

Cocoons in the chakri

When the worms are around a month old, they are shifted to chakhris that are housed in a spacious facility. In the chakris the worms, which are considerably bigger in size now, spin fine silk cocoons around them. A day after the cocoons are formed they are transported to the cocoon market.

Cocoon market at Sidlaghata

Cocoon market at Sidlaghata

We visited the cocoon market at Sidlaghata which we were told is open throughout the year except on Independence and Republic Day.

A worker carrying a huge bundle of cocoons to the reeling unit.

A worker carrying a huge bundle of cocoons to the reeling unit.

More cocoons on their way to the reeling units:

The cocoons were vanishing from the market at a steady rate. The buyers, most of them cycle-bound, were carrying huge bundles of them to the reeling units.

Inside a reeling unit

Inside a reeling unit

Cocoons being dipped in boiling water

Cocoons being dipped in boiling water

The machine at the reeling unit is operated manually

The machine at the reeling unit is operated manually

The reeling units that we were shown into at Sidlaghata had hand-operated machines. In the reeling units, the cocoons are dipped in boiling water to facilitate easy extraction of silk filament. During this process the worms, which have now entered the pupa stage, perish. Many would be wondering why the pupae have to meet with such a gruesome end. 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. Silk yarn spun after the moth emerges from the cocoon is known as Ahimsa silk. During his time, Mahatma Gandhi vehemently opposed killing silkworm pupae for silk. It was he who suggested production of silk from empty cocoons.

Silk yarn produced at the reeling unit

Silk yarn produced at the reeling unit

Silk yarn

Silk yarn

A certain amount of wastage occurs when silk is spun from the cocoons. Strands of wasted yarn are also used to weave fabric popularly called spun silk. Dead pupae are used as a source of protein. Consignments of them are also exported to South Korea where they are a popular delicacy.

After doing a recce of the reeling unit we lunched at the sprawling Silver Oak Farm on the foothills of Nandi Hills. It felt awesome dining amidst the marvelous surroundings drowned in the chirps of birds. A little tortoise here was the centre of attraction. There were a lot of Alsatians too who were enjoying their afternoon siesta.

Silk yarn being dyed at the dyeing unit

Silk yarn being dyed at the dyeing unit

Silk yarn dyed in various hues being left to dry.

Silk yarn dyed in various hues being left to dry.

A hearty lunch later we drove off to a dyeing unit. From the reeling units, bundles of silk yarn are sent to the dyeing units (see picture above). Dyed yarn is left to dry in the open and later packed off to various weaving units.

Inside a weaving unit

Inside a weaving unit

A weaver at work

A weaver at work

Silk yarn of brilliant hues would around an axle in the loom.

Silk yarn of brilliant hues wound around an axle in the loom.

The final stage in the making of silk is at the weaving units. Men and women operate complicated machinery to create spectacular sarees in diverse designs and hues. When you look at the looms you can’t help but admire the men behind the innovation. Weavers take around a day to set up each loom for a saree.

Finished sarees on display

Finished sarees on display

Intricate work on a saree

Intricate work on a saree

Looking back at the entire process I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor silkworms and the men and women who labour so hard. The only consolation is that sericulture is big business in Karnataka and feed millions of families of our rural brethren.

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Trivia

1. Owing to their immense benefits, the mulberry plant and silkworm are fondly referred to as Kalpavriksha and Kamadhenu, respectively.

2. A mulberry plant once planted lasts for nearly 25 years.

3. 30,000 tonnes of cocoons are required to produce 2200 tonnes of raw silk.

4. The length of a silk filament from a single cocoon is about 500 metres.

5. Mulberry can be cultivated throughout the year.

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