17 years ago I found myself in Champa, Madhya Pradesh in the interiors of India, I was working for Fabindia in Delhi at the time and an opportunity came up to visit one of their silk suppliers in the area. How could I refuse. Over several days I explored the phenomenal production from moth to cloth... and discovered the magical world of tussah silk.
Tussah silk is surrounded by misconceptions and problems with the classifications.... Just take a look at the image above to see the differences not only with fibre but also the way it is spun. I am on a journey to get to the bottom of things, I have a ticket booked for November when I will be returning to Champa to hopefully make sense of tussah silk.... and make new connections. Handloom silk weaving is in decline in India, generations of weavers are going hungry as cheap imported silk from China makes more economical sense.... a common story for all of us trying to make a living via sustainable slow craft. The handweavers of India are fighting back, contemporary designers are taking an interest and the international fashion houses around the world are exploring the possibilities. When I first went to India nearly 30 years ago, handloom fabrics where worn by the masses and the low caste, while the wealthy sported the western look. How quickly things can turn on their heads, the handloom has become something for those who can afford the expense of handmade, while the poor show off their cheap imported synthetic... a story told all round the world. I am here to support the voice of the slow hand crafted sustainable, natural fibre fashion industry here in the UK as a natural dyer and a British wool producer and India, the mecca for handloom and hand crafted textiles. But I digress, it is the story of tussah silk I am interested in here.
When we think of silk, our minds go the the fine floaty fabric, silk ties, blouses and bed sheets.... the chinese Bombyx mori moth that produces silk is common enough here in the west, its beauty and elegance comes from a fine filament reeled from the cocoons. The Chinese production sericulture centres are second to non, India unable to compete and now importing Chinese silk for the strong warp threads needed in producing tussah silk cloth. Tussah silk however is relatively unknown here in the UK, unlike India where is is quite common place. So whats the difference? One of the common misconceptions is that tussah silk is wild and comes from cocoons broken as the moth flies free as opposed to the domesticated mulberry eating Bombyx mori moth that is killed to save the unbroken filament in order to reel commercially. In fact tussah silk is both wild and domesticated at the same time and in order to reel the filament successfully on an industrial level it is also necessary to kill the pupa. There are in fact may different tussah silks, all of which come from the various types of the large Saturniid moth, most notably tasar, muga and eri. The domesticated bombyx mori is completely dependent on human nurture and can no longer fly, the Saturniid moths are dependent on the wilds and but not necessisarily the the sterile sheds, although most of the production of tussah silk today is dependent on such captivity. The mugas domestic stock can deteriorate over time and requires an injection of wild seed cocoons from the jungles of Odisha carefully harvested by the protected tribes of the area. Both muga and tasar can be left and cultivated in the wild. "Peace silk" comes from the eri moth, and has earned the privilege to stay alive as it is unable to produce a continuous filament, and leaves a hole in the cocoon, the cloth produced is highly prized by Hindus, Jains and buddhists, although ironically all the eri silk moths are now raised in captivity of specialist sheds in the villages.
Tussah is a very different fibre to the white bombyx mori, its irregular, less glossy, textured and heavy in comparison with its Chinese counterpart... it also comes in a variety of colours from deep brown to light fudge colour. It has been produced in India since 2000 BC. The main sericulture regions of india include Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.
So I am to return in 6 months, I know the green dusty village will be gone, there will be a hotel to stay in unlike before, but I am excited to connect with master crafts people, possible the last generation of weavers for some families.... I can't wait to handle the layers of cloth, the texture of tussah... its enduring charm, that represents all that is so very good about slow sustainable hand made cloth.
Join me this November - hand made journeys in india