Silk, handlooms and the ethical consumer

Perusing all the lovely silk in Cambodia and previously in India has prompted me to do some research into this fabric. It is surprising to find how easily it can fit into an ethical lifestyle. Most animal activists eschew silk because they believe that killing the larvae is inhuman. However there are now many forms of ahimsa-silk or peace silk found in India and abroad that makes wearing silk a guilt-free affair.

Silk has a fascinating history; Chinese emperors were domesticating silk worms a thousand years before the Roman Empire. The most vastly cultivated silk moth is the Bombyx mori which has evolved into a flightless moth after years of domestication. The cocoon stage is when silk is harvested which usually results in the death of the larvae. In the vegetarian silk process, the fully-grown moth is allowed to emerge from the cocoon and the broken fibers are spun.

All of South-East Asia and India have their unique silk cultures. The Northwestern India state of Assam, is known for its three types of silk - muga, eri and pat. Thailand made exquisitely patterned fabric from the wild Saturniidae silk worm. In Cambodia they use the ikat weaving pattern to make scarves, shawls etc. The muga silk is stain-resistant and is never bleached or dyed, however it is not an ahimsa silk. Eri is an ahimsa silk and has a more uneven texture than muga.

Indigo Handloom is a small eco-fashion company which is developing a bridge between the ancient handlooming cottage industry found throughout rural India and contemporary modern Western cultures. They works closely with a small, select community of handloom artisans in India to create scarves of the most exquisite quality and design. They offer a number of timelessly beautiful Muga and Eri silk scarves that were crafted on ancient handlooms, many sitting outside small cottages where the artisan weavers can be near their young children.

The handloom industry in India employs 6,500,000 people and makes 23% of total cloth produced in India. Handlooming forms an important part of the rich cultural heritage of India. This is also true for Cambodia and other parts of South-East Asia.

Many silk fibers are probably already being produced in an organic environment, especially those produced in smaller villages and rural environments. Silk fabric when produced by weavers on handlooms has a near zero energy footprint. Domesticated silk fabrics are typically dyed with a mild acid dye or environmentally low impact fiber reactive dyes. Silk therefore meets several criteria for a sustainable fabric when chosen carefully from local weavers and artisans.

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan © Bolts of Silk Fabric