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From the Socially-Privileged to the Fashionable: An Overview of Indian Silk

Updated on June 23, 2011

Silk is a natural fibrous substance that is obtained from cocoons of many insects. The most popular type of silk is obtained from the larvae of mulberry silkworms, or moth caterpillars, as it is the most commonly used in the manufacture of textile.

Although it is generally believed that China produced the first silk fabrics for use of their kings, emperors, and other members of royalty, archaeological discoveries made in the Indian towns of Chanhu-daro and Harappa reveal that Indian silk has been around just as long. And similar with their Chinese counterparts, Indian silk weavers produced silk from silkworm species to be worn by people belonging to the upper classes, particularly during special occasions.

Presently, silk production in India can be found in its Northern and Southern parts where silk is no longer exclusive to the socially privileged. In South India, the main silk-producing towns include Mysore, Bhoodhan Pochampally, which is generally regarded as the Silk City, among several others. On the other hand, some of the towns in the North where silk production is a big industry are Bhagalpur and Banaras.

Although silk is primarily used in sarees and other traditional Indian costumes, it too has changed with the times. Now, silk can also be used in the manufacture of accessories making silk belts, women's fabric belts and silk wallets a common sight, particularly among the fashionable.


But how is silk produced?

The raising of silkworms is called sericulture and it involves the incubation of the silkworm eggs in rearing houses until they hatch and become worms. After a month and half, the worms will be spinning their cocoons in one unbroken thread on branches placed fort hat exact purpose. The silk produced by the silkworms during a period lasting a little over a week is called raw silk. However, the actual volume of usable silk produced is quite small.

Upon gathering the completely spun cocoons, the insect inside each is killed by heat. The cocoons are then placed in boiling water to dissipate the substance that glue them together until only threadlike filaments remain. These filaments are then extracted by wounding them on a reel. Raw silk threads are made up of long and continuous fibers and are put together for the production of silk yarns. The silk yarns are then twisted to produce various types of “finished” silk threads for knitting or weaving. The silk threads are differentiated from each other by the number of twists they undergo, or the actual direction of the twisting.

It is important to note though that the weaving traditions and techniques observed by the weavers in the silk-producing towns of India may vary slightly as can be observed, if one has a keen eye for subtle things, from the differences in the fineness and sheen of the finished product and its overall design and motif.

Today, India remains to be the top silk consumer in the world. However, the fabric is no longer confined to being used in flowing sarees or shawls for they have been reinvented as items of fashion. Silk belts, particularly women's fabric belts, and silk wallets are their latest incarnations.


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