Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that refers to the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain doctrine of non-violence and peace. Indian silk — used to manufacture saris, stoles and fabric —is famous for its quality, as well as for promoting the traditional method of weaving silk by hand. However, the traditional process of making silk involves killing large numbers of silkworms. Following protests over this aspect of the silk production process, a new way was evolved in India, under which silk is woven without hurting silkworms by making use of empty cocoons. Silk made by this method is termed as Ahimsa Silk. In India, Ahimsa Silk is produced in many parts, including Benares, Jharkhand, Murshidabad, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
The process of silk-culture or sericulture is one in which silk is harvested by boiling the pupae, thereby killing them to obtain their cocoons that are filled with silk. For instance, 1 gram of silk is produced by killing nearly 15 silkworms and 1,500 silkworms are sacrificed for a mere metre of silk cloth. While silk is produced by many insects, such as bees, ants, wasps and spiders, textile silk can only be manufactured from the silk of moth caterpillars.
Under sericulture, silk moths are made to lay eggs on specially prepared paper. The eggs hatch to produce caterpillars who are fed fresh mulberry leaves for nourishment. After a period of 35 days and some four moltings, the silkworms turn 10,000 times heavier due to their active spinning of the cocoon. Straw frames are placed over the trays of silkworms to prevent them from moving, as the spinning requires the worms to move their heads inside the cocoon. Liquid silk produced in the silkworms' glands is forced through spinnerets. This liquid silk is then coated with sericin, a water-soluble gum that solidifies when in contact with air. In one or two days, a silkworm easily spin a mile's length of filament, all of which is encased within the cocoon.
At the end of this process, the silkworm metamorphoses into a moth, but is usually killed using heat before it turns into a moth. Moths are cultivated separately for breeding more silkworms. About seven days before maturity, the cocoons are collected and put into heat chambers with temperatures varying between 70°C and 90°C for about four hours. The worm is killed and the cocoon filled with silk is collected for spinning. To manufacture a five-yard, hand-woven silk sari, for instance, you would need to boil about 50,000 silkworms.
The Non-Violent Process
The non-violent alternative, or Ahimsa Silk, uses wild silk that is cultivated on forest trees. Silk is spun after the silkworm metamorphoses into a moth and flies away leaving its cocoon. Fabric from such cocoons often has a textured look as the moths' exit leads to the breaking of the thread in the cocoon. Though Ahimsa Silk leads to thread wastage (it uses about 16 per cent of the silk, while the regular process of burning silkworms can utilise 80 per cent of the silk in a cocoon) and is more time consuming and costly, textile experts claim that it has a greater degree of purity and better yarn lustre. Besides, activists say all of this is a small price to pay for not using a violent process for, what is essentially, a luxury item of clothing. Ahimsa Silk has gained in popularity and today there are eager buyers all over the world, including in developed regions such as Europe and America.
Eco-Friendly and Empowering
Ecologically, Ahimsa Silk protects castor trees as, under sericulture, these are often felled or burnt to collect the cocoons in their branches. This sort of silk cultivation has also worked to the benefit of forest populations, as it offers gainful employment to them, in the form of collecting cocoons from trees. Economically deprived ethnic groups and communities, especially women, have been initiated into weaving silk, providing them with some form of sustainable livelihood. Several projects—such as teaching tribal women to use foot pedals and power-operated spinning machines to spin yarn, and offering micro-credit facilities for cultivators, spinners and weavers—to encourage the manufacture of Ahimsa Silk are underway in silk producing areas in India.
Ahimsa Silk products are flexible and diverse, ranging from yardage, shawls, stoles, furnishings, garments and rugs, among others. Using such products, therefore, helps sustain ancient communities, forest areas and in the preservation of moths.
Knowing More About Ahimsa Silk
Ahimsa Silk is essentially non-mulberry silk – made from inherently non-reelable eri silk cocoons and non-violently processed tassar and muga cocoons. Technically speaking, Ahimsa Peace Silk can be made from mulberry silk, but the mulberry silk worm has been so thoroughly domesticated that its moth has been reduced to a flightless mating machine. People generally assume that Ahimsa Silk is same as wild silk. Incidentally, all wild silks are not Ahimsa silks and all Ahimsa silks are not wild silks. For example tropical tassar silk worms can only be reared on host trees in the open and spin their cocoons also on the trees, hence it is true wild silk; muga silk worms have to be reared on host trees but can spin their cocoons separately on leaves strung in enclosures, hence it is semi-wild silk; eri silk worms are domesticated and can be reared indoors on castor leaves and can spin their cocoons also indoors, so it is not a wild silk.
People shy from adopting Ahimsa silk thinking it is more expensive. The cost by per gram might be similar but since Ahimsa silk is heavier, the cost of the same length of finished fabric might be more. Ahimsa Silk is as durable as reeled silk and boasts of better moisture absorption properties as it is spun yarn. You can visually make out the differences between reeled and Ahimsa Silk. Amongst tassar spun silks (ahimsa and non-ahimsa) - Ahimsa Peace Silk will have a more natural shade as no reeling waste is allowed to dilute its composition.
Tropical tassar and muga are shades of gold with muga silk being the most golden coloured, with temperate tassar being in between in terms of its golden hue. Eri can be from white to cream coloured. These silks can be further embellished by printing, hand painting, embroidering and can be blended with cotton, wool, jute and other fibers to create exotic fabrics.
Ahimsa Silk in India
According to ahimsa silk producers, the demand for such fabrics is steadily growing among animal lovers in the US, Europe, Japan and Australia.
Pune-based Ahimsa Peace Silk Pvt Ltd's said that over 60 per cent of the business comes from the US and the products are also exported to Europe, Japan and Australia, said Leelavati Sabale, president of the company.
And, according to Hyderabad-based Andhra Pradesh Handloom Weavers' Cooperative Society's (APCO) Kusuma Rajaiah, a pioneer in the production of ahimsa silk, over 40 per cent of the total production goes to the US and the fabrics were also been exported to Europe and the UK.
Since commercial production of the silk started in 2000, APCO has increased the capacity from 1,000 metres per annum to 5,000 mts per month. Ahimsa Peace Silk Pvt Ltd's production also has gone up from 500 mts to 5,000 mts in three years' time.
Reference:Ahimsa Silk in India
Did you know
- One silk saree can mean up to 50,000 dead silkworms.
- At least 1,500 silk worms are killed to produce one metre of the usual silk cloth
- 'Ahimsa silk' is made out of the cocoon left behind by the moth after completing its life-cycle
- The demand for such fabrics is steadily growing among animal lovers in the US, Europe, Japan and Australia
- AHIMSA SILK
- AHIMSA(NON-VOILENCE) SILKS
- Silken touch with `Ahimsa silk'
- Cruelty-free silk
- Non-Violent and Eco-Friendly Silk
- Ahimsa silk yet to catch on in Indian market