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  • Writer's pictureKaren Selk


Cocoons, Yarn, Fabric - Tasar Muga Eri

Many books have been written about silk. The majority of those books are about: its illustrious history, its role as a symbol of status, its adornment of royalty and aristocrats, the influence it has carried in the world of fashion and its expedition along the silk road. Seldom is there mention given to the human equation tied to the clever caterpillar that produces this fine luxury.

My interest in silk began when I wove a scarf with the soft, shiny yarn. The fascination grew exponentially when my husband and I had our silk import business, Treenway Silks, which supplied handworkers the world over with the raw products of silk yarn, fibre and ribbons. My quest to understand all aspects of silk, to better serve our customers, and to satisfy my personal curiosity led me on a silk odyssey through Asia, which has continued more than three decades.

I knew that the words tasar, muga and eri related to wild silk which seemed so mysterious and exotic. After numerous trips by jeep, car, bus, plane, train, motorcycle and foot, to the remote forests of eastern India to meet these three wild silkworms, they are no longer strangers. More importantly, the tribal (Indian word for indigenous peoples) people in the forests and forest fringes, who rear these caterpillars and turn their cocoons into cloth, have profoundly affected my life.

Unlike their domesticated cousins, Bombyx mori, which produce the white silk used the world over, these wild silkworms have rejected the attempts that have been made at total domestication. They live in and eat in a variety of food trees in the forest. They are feisty and independent, just like the people who care for them. Raising silkworms in the open forest is a risky business; full of predators, disease, inclement weather as well as the things we cannot see like the health of the soil that grows the trees the silkworms eat on. This type of sericulture (raising silkworms), has been part of the social, spiritual and economic fabric of the tribal people of this area for millennia, it is a living culture.

The revitalization of this small forest industry is sustainable and gentle on the environment providing gainful employment that is attractive to young people who are happy to remain in a rural setting, rather than migrate to the already over crowded urban areas. Tribal villages are reforesting depleted woodlands to feed the caterpillars and they are prospering for their efforts.

It is one thing to read some passages in outdated, scholarly books with drawings of the inner workings of a silkworm’s body and another to travel hard and meet the rearers and silkworms in person, in their natural habitat. It is the stuff that makes your heart wobble and your mind hope this is not a dream. These experiences have instilled a deep sense of appreciation for the silkworm rearers I never knew existed and an obligation to bring awareness to this amazing saga taking place in the tropical forests of India.

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