Weaving Tradition, Stitching Culture: What is Eri Silk Fabric?
What comes to mind when you think of silk?
Do you picture a satin-like sheen and a soft, ethereal feel? Maybe your mind springs immediately to designer labels. No matter what images silk conjures, we’ve found that eri silk both shatters and raises expectations.
In the spring of 2023, we took a day trip out to the forest villages near Chandubi to meet with 7 Weaves, our eri silk partner. We took the opportunity to observe the process, learn about the rich tradition, and ask these artisans about their trade. It is our honor and privilege to share what we learned with you.
If you’ve ever wondered “What is eri silk?” or “What are silkworms?” this journal will answer those questions and more.
Here, we take a deep dive into the world of eri silk — its history, process, purpose, and the forest’s dependence on its production.
Table of Contents:
- 7 Weaves: working with tradition to preserve the forests
- How eri silk fabric is made
- Is eri silk sustainable?
- What is the difference between eri silk and mulberry silk?
- Meet Eri: Swahlee’s latest collection
What is eri silk fabric?
What is eri silk? Eri silk fabric is a cloth made from the cocoon of the eri silkworm. Produced primarily in Northeast India, this sustainable textile has a rich history and tradition among the indigenous peoples who have produced it for generations. This fabric has a texture similar to linen.
Eri silk has some incredible qualities:
- Hypoallergenic — great for those with sensitive skin
- Thermo-regulating — keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer
- Incredibly strong — lasts a lifetime and still looks — and feels — wonderful
- Wrinkle-resistant — does not wrinkle as easily or severely as linen or cotton
- Breathable — has a light, airy feel
7 Weaves: working with tradition to preserve the forests
At Swahlee, we believe in partnering with local artisans and companies that are working to make a difference in their communities.
Founded in 2017 with a dual passion for conserving the forests and empowering local artisans, 7 Weaves is a testament to what can happen when humanity and nature work together to create beauty. They focus on protecting and developing the eri silk production methods found in local villages and communities.
Some of the Swahlee team had the chance to visit 7 Weaves and see firsthand how our fabric is made. While there, we took the opportunity to talk with some of the 7 Weaves team to learn more about the legacy of eri silk and the vision behind their company.
Rituraj Dewan, one of the co-founders, shared the heart behind 7 Weaves and how it started.
“7 Weaves is an experiment,” he explained. Rituraj shared that the goal of 7 Weaves is to save the ever-shrinking forest. When he first began his conservation efforts, Rituraj admits that he thought the local forest villages were the problem, that they were the ones depleting the natural resources and harming the ecosystem. But, as the team spent time observing the region, that isn’t what they found.
Quite the opposite.
They discovered that the local people were not harming the forest — they were helping it. It was a beautiful symbiotic relationship of respect and stewardship that had persisted for generations. In Rituraj’s words, “People are dependent on the forest and also the forest is dependent on them.”
And so the goal shifted.
Instead of finding ways to bring the local people out of dependency on the forest, the 7 Weaves team needed to find a way to protect the sanctity of the forest by empowering locals to continue the cyclical patterns they have practiced for eons.
Thus 7 Weaves, producer of eri silk, was born.
In the 7 Weaves studio, you won’t find rows upon rows of commercial machines with people hunched over them for 15 hours a day. Instead, you’ll see a few traditional looms tucked inside a traditional Assamese mud-and-thatch workshop. You’ll find artisans creating beautiful pieces of cloth, woven with hands trained by generations of tradition.
We spoke with Moni Rhaba, the Head of Spinning at 7 Weaves, and asked her about the impact that 7 Weaves has had on her life.
“It changed my life. I now have a means to earn and I feel proud that I am working in a company where I am able to provide people with my hard work.” She responded with a smile.
Moni went on to share she feels motivated when she sees that the eri is exported and that others are enjoying the fruit of her and her people’s labor. Seeing the traditional craft spread around the world brings a smile to this beautiful woman’s face.
We love that we can partner with companies that not only care about the impact they make but intentionally work to make it as positive as possible.
How eri silk fabric is made
Eri silk is produced by a series of steps and processes, handed down through the generations, in rural communities. Production is labor intensive and takes a considerable amount of time — up to 5 weeks just to process from cocoon to woven fabric.
What are silkworms?
Silkworms are silk moth caterpillars. They create cocoons at the beginning of their metamorphosis process and these cocoons are used to make silk.
The eri silkworm begins its life as an egg laid by a female eri silk moth. Upon hatching, it spends its days eating leaves from castor plants, which is where these worms get their name.
In Assameese, the local language, the castor plant is called “era.”
During this stage, the sericulturists — silk makers — will keep the worms covered with castor leaves, both to provide food and keep them safe from potential predators.
By the time it is around 20 days old, the eri silkworm has grown exponentially and is the size of a middle finger. It is now time for the worm to begin spinning its cocoon.
Roughly 45 days after the egg was initially laid, it has transformed itself into a cocooned silkworm that is ready to be harvested.
One unique attribute of the eri silkworm’s cocoon is that it spins it with a hole in one end, enabling the adult moth to emerge without harming the cocoon. In other silkworm species, such as those used in mulberry silk, the moth eats its way out of the cocoon, damaging the fibers. Because of this, other cocoons are often boiled while the worm remains inside to kill it and keep it from ruining the fine silk thread in which it is wrapped.
Not so with eri silk. Because the worms leave a hole, they can emerge safely as adult moths. This means that there is no need to harm the worm or moth during the sericulture process.
Sadly, eri silk moths do not have mouths, or the ability to eat. Once they begin spinning their cocoons, they are finished eating for the rest of their lives. After hatching, the adult silk moth lives only about a week before essentially starving to death.
Despite the built-in exit, some of the worms will find themselves pulled from their cocoons before they have transformed. But not for the reason you might think.
Indigenous communities live by the principle of “waste not, want not.” For these communities, the eri silkworm is a source of protein with incredible health benefits.
Critics have claimed that this ruins the peaceful nature of eri silk and negates any sustainability claims. This is simply not true. Compared to other protein sources, such as pork or chicken, silkworm farming is incredibly sustainable.
Silkworms live off of fast-growing castor plant leaves and do not require deforestation for the construction of farms or housing facilities. They generate minimal waste and consume minimal resources, making them a sustainable and resourceful source of protein.
Boiling the empty cocoons
Once the cocoons are empty, they are boiled for about 2 days to remove sericin, the gummy protein that helps the strands stick together. This must be removed so that the silk strands can be separated and spun into yarn.
Once boiled, the cocoons change from a yellowish-golden tone to a slightly shimmery white color. The cocoons are flattened into rounds and placed on the mud walls of the workshop to dry.
Spinning the yarn
Once the cocoons are dried, it is time to spin them into yarn.
There are two ways this can be done.
One is the drop-spindle method and the other is with a spinning wheel. Unlike other silks, eri silk fibers are short pieces of silk thread, not one long thread. They are spun together to connect them into one long piece of yarn.
Soaking the yarn
Once the yarn is spun, it is soaked before dyeing. This helps to remove impurities and prepare the fibers to receive the dye.
Dyeing the yarn
At Swahlee, we use eri silk colored only from natural dyes.
The Eri Silk Blouse in Soft Pink uses lac, a natural resin found on trees, to thank for its elegantly subtle hues.
The Eri Silk Blouse in Olive Green combines onion peel and turmeric to create a uniquely stunning shade of green.
The dyeing process is extensive. First, dye material must be collected from the forest or market. Then it must be prepared. Typically, the raw dye material is placed in a large pot with water and brought to a boil. The color is extracted from the materials and then the water is strained to remove the raw dye material.
Now it is finally time to dye the yarn.
The yarn will sit in the pot for hours, sometimes even overnight, soaking in the dye and transforming into lusciously colored strands, ready to be woven into art.
Weaving the yarn into fabric
After dyeing and drying, the yarn is woven into eri silk fabric. This is done on large, traditional looms, just like the ones their mothers and their grandmothers used.
Weavers sit on a bench affixed to the loom and weave everything from complex patterns to simple fabric. It takes nearly a week to finish.
When they have finished, roughly 50 days after the silkworm eggs were laid, a lovely piece of eri silk is ready to be used.
Is eri silk sustainable?
When we asked Rituraj if eri silk is sustainable, a faint smile played on his lips.
“Define sustainability,” he countered.
He went on to explain true sustainability.
True sustainability is using resources responsibly. It isn’t avoiding the use of resources. As Rituraj pointed out, the methods used to make eri silk place people in a symbiotic relationship with the resources of nature. Sericulturists need the forest and silkworm populations to thrive just as much as the earth needs these things.
Oftentimes, we function from a mindset of scarcity — there are limited resources and they will be gone so we should make sure we get what we need and try to preserve as much as we can.
Indigenous eri communities are different.
Rituraj explained that here, there is a mindset of plenty, of abundance. The resources used are the ones that can be found plentifully and the traditions and methods used avoid overuse and overproduction.
The land will naturally grow only what it can sustain and these local communities have learned how to steward these resources in such a way that the production of eri silk helps protect the forest and build ecosystems.
Have you ever wondered why you haven’t heard about the Monarch butterfly’s chrysalis or the cocoon of the Luna moth since 6th grade? There's a good reason for that.
Once a moth hatches, its cocoon becomes nothing more than abandoned waste. Especially in a community that rears silkworms as a source of food, these cocoons are just a byproduct of farming a food source. Just as glue and leather are ways of minimizing the wastage of natural resources, eri silk creation minimizes the wastage from the lifecycle of the silkworm. Instead of being discarded or left to decompose, these remnants of the moth’s previous life can be made into something that serves the people who call these forests home.
Because it is a natural fiber, when an eri piece has lived a full life and no longer serves its function, it can be returned to the earth to decompose and create good soil for the next generation.
Eri silk is incredibly sustainable, far beyond many other textiles. The sustainability of many materials relies more on what it doesn’t do or use: did the cotton use too much water, how many microplastics is that polyester shirt going to leach into our water supply, and so on.
But eri silk is different.
Eri focuses on what it does use and how it uses it. Eri is sustainable because it does use natural resources. But, it does so with respect and honor for the natural order and supply.
What is the difference between eri silk and mulberry silk?
Mulberry silk has a satin-like feel and is made from the cocoon of the mulberry silkworm. Production often requires the worm to be killed. Eri silk has a texture more like linen and the worm does not need to be harmed. Mulberry silk is common, and eri silk is rare.
Mulberry silk originated in China thousands of years ago. Thanks to overproduction, what was once a natural resource has become an environmental threat.
While this is the case for many mulberry silk factories, there is a rising movement of stockists and manufacturers who focus on Peace Silk, also known as cruelty-free silk. Peace Silk places humanity over production and works to ensure that every step of the process is kind to all involved, from the silkworm to the farmer, to the planet.
Mulberry silk, whether made as Peace Silk or not, is the most popular type of silk and is, by far, the most readily available.
Eri silk, on the other hand, is incredibly rare and comes from only a handful of communities around the world. Instead of having a satin-like finish, this artisanal textile more closely resembles linen or wool in texture and feel.
Thanks to the process used to make it, as well as the fact that no worms or moths need to be harmed to create the fabric, eri silk can proudly wear the labels of both sustainable and ethical at all levels; a heroic feat for any textile.
Meet Eri: Swahlee’s latest collection
At Swahlee, we love working with local textiles and empowering local trades, which is why we are so excited about our Eri collection. Partnering with 7 Weaves to get eri silk into more wardrobes is a dream come true.
We believe in the power of job creation and the preservation of traditional practices. Eri is simply an expression of this belief.
The Eri Silk Blouse is our foray into the world of eri silk. With a minimalistic design that allows the artistic texture of the fabric to shine, this top features elegant cap sleeves, a relaxed fit, and an elevated dart in the back.
This top is designed to fit perfectly into your life. It is polished enough for the office, yet simple enough for a day at the park with the kids. No matter what your day looks like, the Eri Silk Blouse is ready to tackle it with class.
This top is available in Soft Pink and Olive green. The entire collection is a limited run and will not be available for too long so make sure to add it to your wardrobe before it’s gone.