The Sound of Silkworms

Ryndia Silk is not only about making the hills of Meghalaya come alive; they are also about Ahimsa and honouring the local weaving community

“They are also living beings. Their work is so unique and when you work with the weavers, you see the whole process and appreciate how such small creatures give us such exquisite fabric. We as a fashion house want to preserve this privacy of the silkworms. We do not want any exploitation of sorts. That’s the least we can do.” – JanessalinePyngrope

Unique to Meghalaya are the quiet weavers of Ri-Bhoi district involved in a different kind of weaving practice involving Eri silkworms. The worms are not killed in order to extract silk from the cocoon – the reason why the silk is called Ahimsa or Peace Silk. The local name of the castor leaves that the silkworms feed on is Ryndia, the other name of Eri silk.

The cultivation, processing and weaving of Eri silk is carried out particularly in the village of Umden, among others in the district. The women of Ri Bhoi have kept this art form alive, transforming their village into a hub for organic silk. Other fabrics of different designs, texture, colours and utility are also found here. Motifs such as checks, vertical stripes and simple brocades, synonymous with the state of Meghalaya, reflect the rich culture of the region.

Sunday Shillong spoke to JanessalinePyngrope, Business Head of Daniel Syiem’s Ethnic Fashion House (DSEFH) to get an idea about what makes Ryndia silk unique among the hand-spun textiles of India. It is said to have thermal properties – cool during summer and warm in winter – and also possess medicinal properties. Janessaline said how their fashion house promotes Eri silk not only to support the local weaving community, but because of its impact on the ecology. Sustainable fashion is the way to go, she says.

A Leaf from the Past

While tracing the roots of Ryndia, we got to know how Ryndia was worn for special, formal occasions. In the past, it was only used to make the off-white shawls worn by Khasi men and the thohrewstem for the women, worn during weddings, among other occasions. Even the headgear was made of Ryndia silk. Kings and queens draped it for festive occasions like Ka Shad Suk Mynsiem and Ka Shad Nongkrem.

It is a fabric with a tradition of its own, passed down from generation to generation, like the myths of Meghalaya. Shillong was then the capital of undivided Assam. Even though the latter may boast of Eri silk production, its origin is in Meghalaya. Both states claim ownership of Eri silk because of shared borders. Most people called the fabric as Eri silk; the non-violent aspect of weaving has come to light recently, and forms the essence of its weaving. Parallels to Jain community by their friends also made them re-think about this; that they would also want to wear Ryndia.

The Process: From Farm to Fibre

Eri silk is a natural fibre and comes from the cocoon of the silkworm larva of the silk moth, Bombyx Mori. The weavers employ traditional methods of spinning and it gives Ryndia “the visual appearance of a hand-spun cotton or wool with a muted sheen of silk”. Chemicals are not used for fixing the colour.

In order to improve the sheen, colour and texture of the silk, cocoons are degummed by boiling in an alkaline solution of soap, soda and water. Once this stage is crossed, they are pounded into flat round cocoon strips and dried. What emerges is a natural white fluffy fibre that is ready to go to the next stage, i.e., be spun into yarn.

Natural dyes are used – turmeric, tea leaf and onion peels – the philosophy behind which is ensuring that nothing goes to waste. It is vital to maintain balance between the ecosystem, the reason why any leftovers become part of the dyeing process. They are converted to natural dye and then put on the fabric. We spoke of how time consuming it is, given the hours of manual labour and lack of machineries. It is a step-by-step process, she said.

As a fashion house, they also want to encourage a hand spun and hand-woven fabric. This is one of the reasons why they do not believe in mass production of Ryndia. Because of the hard work involved, they have kept it as a luxury product. The clientele should be appreciative of its essence, a reason why it does not come cheap. Janessaline also said the fabric feels like second skin, adding, “Anyone who has worn a Ryndia will always want to wear a Ryndia”.

The other beautiful aspect of Ryndia is how the silkworms are given a home of their own. Eri rearing houses have been built specifically for this purpose. Their privacy is not disturbed. Janessaline said it is easy to rear them in one’s home, but care must be taken that they are not harmed in any way. Their habitat needs to be respected. We spoke of how human intervention always has the potential to damage our ecosystem.

A Dash of Contemporary

Our conversation then shifted to how DSEFH has been working towards promoting the fabric, now in its tenth year of existence. The Creative Head and one half of the duo, Daniel Syiem, who has pioneered fashion in Meghalaya, has been working towards bringing out the contemporary side to Ryndia. Why just be limited to shawls and stoles when it can be converted to something that caters to all age groups?

As they continue to experiment with variety, their dream is to pass this heritage handloom to the next generation. Janessaline said: “The younger generation should acknowledge the significance of Ryndia and drape it with pride.” She stressed on how they hope that this fabric is maintained. Generation Z should become proud owners of something that is from and of the state. More importantly, it is valuing the work of the women weavers who are also part of this story.

Challenges along the Way

Very little assistance has come from the government or the private sector with regards to funding. However, angel investors, family and friends have been assisting the duo. Janessaline said how they have gone international and promoted Ryndia. She mentioned how the erstwhile Sericulture Department (now Department of Textiles) helped them initially. That assistance helped boost Ryndia at a few international fashion events.

Obstacles are part of entrepreneurship, and any entrepreneur has to be careful about revolving funds, reserve financial funds and loans. Documentation, paper work and interest rates, especially when the business is a niche field, remain a challenge. Given that everyone associated with Ryndia are dependent on each other, it is also important to give financial assistance to the local weaving community.

From Thread to Trend: What now?

Stories around fabrics that form such an important identity marker have existed for centuries. As fashion continues to evolve, the trend is geared towards organic, eco-friendly and sustainable fabric. Eri silk weaving in Meghalaya is done in a harmonious way with the rural lifestyle of the local weaving community. Perhaps, now is the time to give Ryndia its due respect and help sustain the people behind its creation. A maiden Eri Corner has recently been set up by the Department of Textiles at MeghTex, Shillong.

Janessaline concluded by stating that the fabric is versatile. The market and buyers are there, but more needs to be done to keep the vision of Ryndia alive, one that celebrates the spirit of Ahimsa.

(Sunday Shillong thanks the Department of Textiles, Government of Meghalaya, for permission to use documents and videos in writing this piece).

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