Craft in action

The lesser-known craft of eri weaving from Meghalaya has found appreciation for continuing to be a traditional sustainable craft even with an increase in scales of production

Historically Meghalaya has had a rich variety of handwoven textiles, with unique characteristics that reflect the state and its skilled artisans. The three varieties of silk produced in Meghalaya are — eri (locally known as ryndia from the castor plants the silkworms feed on), muga and most commonly mulberry. The Ri-Bhoi district is one of the main regions of Meghalaya where eri culture and handloom weaving is still practiced. For its people, it is not merely a cottage industry, but has a long tradition and is part of the culture and heritage of the community. The eri worm itself is reared not merely for silk production but also for its food value among the local population. Silk worms are considered a delicacy in the region and are known to be of high protein value. Eri-culture goes hand in hand with preserving the forest ecosystem and encouraging cultivation of plants that are used for dyeing the fabric or feeding the silk worms. In fact, all the materials involved in the process are sourced from the district itself. Conceived before the word ‘sustainable’ became a buzzword, the manufacturing of the material has always maintained a low carbon footprint.

Eri silk is unique not only in its aesthetic and texture but also in the cyclical nature of its production. The rearers, spinners and weavers of the fabric, being from the indigenous Khasi community, are intrinsically aware of the fragile nature of nature’s resources and the responsibility that humans have of not taking more than required from the earth. Hence, every step of the production process is undertaken with the idea of regeneration — whether it is growing the plants the worms feed on or not killing the larvae during production or using purely natural dyes that are 100 per cent chemical free. As compared to mulberry silkworm rearing, which requires large tracts of land in order to be feasible, eri food plants can be grown on smaller plots also, thus easily capable of becoming a means of supplementary income for agriculturists. The product is completely handmade from start to finish and it produces no toxic wastes of any kind.

Unlike cotton fields that are extremely demanding in terms of water resources, eri plantations are self-sufficient and can be grown in drought-prone regions as well. While the resultant material lacks the gloss that one expects of silk, when one understands that the fabric was born out of the villagers’ need to derive protection from the elements and has not been modified in any way to suit contemporary needs, one has a renewed respect for the innate beauty of it. Partly due to this uniqueness, eri silk is slowly being brought into the limelight in the fashion industry, also thanks to the efforts of some local designers from the North East, who have taken it upon hemselves to contemporise the use of the fabric for a broader market.

It is the combination of the traditional loom and the handspun yarn which gives eri fabric its distinctive aesthetic. The qualities of eri are a combination of the visual appearance of handspun cotton or wool, with a muted sheen of silk; it has unique thermal properties of being cool in summer and warm in winter. While eri is also produced in other regions of the North East, most famously in Assam, the Meghalayan eri is generally of a heavier weight. Maybe this is due to the fact that Meghalaya has a colder climate and these shawls and scarves have traditionally provided ample protection from the elements to its rural wearers. But as a result eri — the ‘poor man’s silk’ often loses out on even national recognition, perhaps, because it does not have the glamourous sheen that one often associates with the material.

The eri silk worm spins a cocoon made of short staple fibres, unlike the continuous filament of mulberry or muga cocoon. The filament silk cocoon is boiled and reeled to extract the silk while the worm is still inside the cocoon, whereas if the eri silk worm breaks through its open-ended cocoon of short fibres, it does not spoil the silk. After washing and preparing the cocoon, the eri silk yarn is then created through hand-spinning. It is a simple process and requires only a wooden spindle or takli but requires great skill, especially to achieve an even thread or thin thread. The irregularity of the handspun yarn gives eri silk the characteristic rustic appearance and is often compared to other handspun fibres such as wool, cotton or linen.

Thus ryndia is also called ahimsa (non-violent) silk or peace silk: extracted from cocoons without killing the larvae inside. The eri product produced the traditional way is 100 per cent natural, entirely defined by the local environment and people who create it, organic and sustainable in production as it has been for centuries.

The natural dyes seen in the most common colour combination of the small checked Khasi shawl is the lac red and turmeric yellow. The dyers also use onion skin, tea, roots, barks, berries and flowers, depending on availability of the plants as the seasons change. A range of colours is available from natural dyes in Meghalaya, covering the colour spectrum from black/ purple/ red/ pink/ orange/ gold/ yellow/ brown/ beige/ coffee/ green/olive, including many tones of all these colours. The dyes are generally fixed with a locally available leaf as a mordant, a technique and ingredient solely available in Meghalaya. They also use iron ore both for colour and for fixing the colour. Iron ore produces a black colour, which mixed with stick-lac produces purple. The waste produced from natural dyes is harmless to the environment and returns to the earth as compost, completing the cycle and respecting natural resources. These distinctive base materials all combine to give eri a characteristic colour palette, texture and feel, one that is instantly recognisable anywhere and bonds the maker and the user instantly with the earth from where it emerged.

As a demonstration of the sustainable manner in which eri is produced, it is notable that the villagers take turns amongst those who cultivate the worms so that they do not exhaust the availability of the leaves from the eri food plants. One also has to appreciate that while the process maybe completely traditional, it is by no means stagnant. There are constant challenges the producers have to adapt to, such as the insufficient availability of the castor plants the silkworms feed on. On June 6, 2015, on the occasion of World Environment Day, North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society (Nesfas) initiated a plantation day project in Khweng village, where saplings were planted on community plantations, to increase eri food plant production. The most heartening part of this initiative was that the idea stemmed from the community itself and was aimed to increase cultivation of eri silk as per demand.

As the dyes are natural, including the mordant, there is no issue of toxic waste from the dyeing process. There is some concern over sustainable use of natural dyes, as these natural resources are limited. There is a plantation of indigo that has been initiated by the government and the Meghalaya Basin Development Authority. Further study needs to be done and assessment of where to support natural dyers.

Eri silk weaving in the Meghalaya is traditionally done on floor looms. The loom and its components have a simple structure and are handmade by the village women themselves. The traditional floor loom is completely made of bamboo, including the reed used to beat the cloth during weaving. The heddles are made from string, tied on manually every time a new warp is put on the loom. Each shawl requires a new warp, which allows the weaver to control and maintain an even tension as she weaves. Many weavers have improvised and adjusted this loom by raising the structure higher off the ground so that they can sit at the loom rather than on the floor.

Frame looms are also used by many weavers today due to the possibility of increased production and a more consistent quality in production. A longer warp length can be put on, meaning many shawls can be woven on the same warp and the solid, fixed structure of the frame loom makes it easier to maintain an even tension. The handspun yarn can be difficult to use in the warp of the frame loom, and many weavers are now using the mill-spun yarn produced in Assam. These modifications easing production have naturally increased popularity of the frame loom, but it is the quality of cloth produced by the floor loom that is typical of Meghalaya. The distinctive charm of the entirely handmade product woven on a handmade bamboo loom can never be replicated on a frame loom.

But for the market for such a niche product to sustain itself, the support of buyers, both local and international, is an important cog in the wheel in the process of revival of this type of craft, to ensure that it flourishes and is handed over as a legacy for the future generations. “There are many people and institutions that share the passion for eri silk in Meghalaya. The knowledge and skill of the artisans is valued as a creative reflection of Meghalaya’s cultural heritage.” according to Anna-Louise Meynell, craft preservation consultant with Nesfas. To hold an eri product in one’s hands is to experience a part of the region’s history, culture and identity. As one buyer from Croatia has put it she felt the ‘soul of Meghalaya’ woven into the scarf she bought.

This is a true understanding of the distinctive character of eri, it is not merely a fabric produced in the remote villages of Meghalaya, but woven in it is the story of the indigenous people who

are deeply involved in bringing it to life.

The author is an architect by profession and a writer by

passion


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