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Associated with ceremonial rites of ancient India, silk has been a highly revered fabric. It continues to be a popular and widely used material because of it soft smoothness, its lustre and shine and its graceful and sensuous folds which lend themselves exquisitely to designing.

Silk – the very word conjures up visions of a fabric so soft, so smooth, so splendorous, it is fit for a king. The highly revered fabric is associated with ceremonial rites among the Hindus and the religious books are full of references to it. India was probably the first country to attain perfection in the art of weaving fabric, silk as well as cotton. From times immemorial silk has been a much sought after fabric by not only the common man but by kings and queens. This soft material left the shores of India and captured the hearts of the whole world centuries ago.

Silk is described as a fibrous substance produced by many insects principally in the form of a cocoon or covering within which the creature is enclosed and protected during the period of its principal transformation. In fact, the webs and nests formed by spiders are also known as silk. As a fabric, it would fall under the animal group origin along with wool and hair fibres. Silk is woven and silk worms reared in different parts of India. From the east to the west and from the north to the south, this splendorous fabric, has its own individual characteristics.

Also known as India’s fabric of dreams, brocade silk is obtained by the interweaving of coloured silk and gold threads. Brocades are produced in Ahmedabad, Aurangabad, Benaras, Delhi, Lucknow, Bhopal, Murshidabad, Thanjavur (Tanjore), Tiruchirapally, Madras and Surat. At times, the richness of a brocade is enhanced by the weaving of verses from the Hindu scriptures or the Koran thus making it appropriate for religious ceremonies.

There are various species of silk worms that are cultivated in India, the most popular being the mulberry silk moth of China-Bombay Mori – besides the Mooga, Tasar and Eri. The tasar yarn is procured from a fully matured worm while pure silk is obtained from a cultivated one. Tussore is spelt and pronounced in various ways and is the fabric made from the fibre of the Antheraea Paphia which is found in the forest areas of different parts of India.

Ganeshpur, a village in Bhandara District in Maharashtra is famous for the Kosa silk. ( The word Kosa means cocoon in the local language). In this village silk has been produced and exported ever since 1871.

In the north, silk has been produced since 1851 in the ancient city of Oudh (now Varanasi or Benaras) and in the south, Kanchipuram (75 kilometres from Madras) is where the famous Kanchivaram saris are made. Mysore silk is another popular variety.

Silk weaving is basically a highly handcrafted industry with two weavers working on a single loom producing on an average two silk saris in a month.

The price of plain silk saris varies between Rs.500/- and 1100/- while for a zari it could cost between Rs. 2000/- and 20,000/-.

There are numerous varieties of silk to choose from in India and the list is quite endless. “There are so many different varieties to choose from and there is silk to suit all types of garments”, informs designer Wendell Rodricks whose range of silk garments have a touch of the Indo-west fusion as he presents palazzo pants, and flowing shirts with the kimono cut or just short mini dresses. Silk today is not just restricted to saris but a wide range of ladies and men’s wear. “For a more structured garment where the designer wants to dictate the silhouette and give it definite lines the best choice would be raw silk, tasar, brocade or silk blended with cotton”, informs Rodricks. Raw silk is the silk as drawn on the reel before it undergoes the several further processes which render it fit to be used as thread in weaving or otherwise. A skein of raw silk is the simplest form in which the product of sericulture after reeling is dealt with in commerce. Muta or Suta is another coarse but enduring class of silk ideal for structured garments.

Another variety of silk which has become quite popular recently is chanderi. “This has the body but its transparency makes it more delicate thereby enabling the designer to achieve a structured look yet giving a transparent effect. It is fluid and flowign and allows the designer to give the necessary sculpting to the garment”, explains Rodricks. “For those softly flowing ensembles there is nothing to beat crepe, chiffon, chinon, crepe-de-chine or silk organza”, feels Deepak Gupta of Amardeep Textiles, who has just launched a line of readymade ladies’ wear silk with ornate embroidery. “Silk with embroidery is very popular as well as the jacquard or brocade designs. The tanchoi too is ideal for more heavy formal wear,” confirms Gupta.

Besides the popular brocade which is also known as khamkhwab or fabric of dreams there is amru which is also like brocade but it is the more affordable version. The gulbadan which literally means body like a rose is a light textured fabric while sangi has a wavy line and is a great favourite when mixed with cotton. Ghalta is a mix of cotton and silk white atlas is a thicker form of silk. The doriya variety is in silk, cotton-silk and tasar and has a small checked effect. The most interesting is the dhup chhaon which has a warp of one colour and the weft of another and the word means sun and shade in English.

“The silk yarn is the most versatile because it is not only strong, absorbent but also catches colour very well and reflects. The fabric is popular for formal occasions because of its lustre and shire. As a yarn it is highly resilient and elastic and before the discovery of lycra it was favoured since it could be cut on the bias to obtain stretchability”, explains Rodricks.

Silk is used for dupattas, saris garments, fabrics, caps, ker-chiefs, scarves, dhotis, turbans, shawls, ghagras or lehengas to quilts, bedcovers, cushions, table-cloths and even curtains”, says Gupta. No doubt silk is exported all over the world from India but more in garment from rather than fabric. “Indian silk does have an excellent reputation all over the world but it is in research and development that we need to improve our efforts by mixing different strains of silks to evolve new varieties. The combinations of silk and linen or he development of silk for more contemporary use besides saris will help in matching the silks produced by other countries of the world”, adds Rodricks.

Usually there are three crops per year of cocoons. Starting from July-August, September-October and November-December. Each crop acts as a seed cocoon for the next one till the third one has matured. There are two varieties of silk- pure silk and blended silk. The process before the silk is obtained starts with the laying of the egg by the mother moth followed by the emergence of the caterpillar or larvae or worm which weaves a cocoon also known as the pupa or chrysalis and then the yarn is procured.

Unlike cotton which is graded in counts ilk is graded in deniers. In cotton the lesser the count he thicker the material and the higher the count the thinner the material. While in silk it is the opposite with the lesser denier yearn producing a finer silk and a thicker denier producing a heavier silk.

“The colours of silk in fashion today are the shades of red, pink, scarlet and magenta. This family of colours are popular in India. Besides these, emerald green, purple, electric blue and yellow are the other jewel tones that are in demand. The patterns on silk are the woven motifs, weblike designs and woodland designs. 90 per cent of the customers prefer traditional designs even now. Saris especially must either have a woven zari border or a printed one. A plain silk sari in a lighter weight is popular when it has a hand painted motif in gold.”

High fashion stores abroad in the USA and Europe place large orders for silk from India. Raw silk or Dupion silk jackets, suits, blouses and furnishings are exported to Europe while crepe silk and satin silk saris and Kanchi silk saris are sent to America, Europe and Australia.