AHIMSA PEACE SILK

the story

 

 

Ahimsa Silk, also known as peace silk, cruelty-free silk and non-violent silk, refers to any type of silk that is produced without harming or killing the silk worms. (It is also, erroneously, called vegan silk. As an animal product, however, it is not.)

 

This is in contrast to conventional silk, whereby cocoons are steamed, boiled, or dried in the sun, killing the silk larvae inside. According to PETA, 3,000 silk worms are killed to produce one pound of silk; 10,000 silk worms are killed to produce one silk sari.

 

 

Ahimsa silk is made on a very small scale as a cottage industry in India, and its production supports a wide community of rural silk farmers (usually women), spinners (women) and weavers (women & men).

 

The word “ahimsa” itself derives from Sanskrit and translates as “noninjury”. Ahimsa is an important ethical tenet of three major religions originating from the Subcontinent: Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism. It concerns doing no harm against any other living things.

 

Ahimsa is the attribute of the soul, and therefore, to be practiced by everybody in all affairs of life. If it cannot be practiced in all departments, it has no practical value.

Mahatma Gandhi

 

The origin of ahimsa silk

 

 

The creation and commercialisation of ahimsa silk is credited to Kusuma Rajaiah, a 60-year old government officer from Andhra Pradesh in India, who holds the patent and trademark for Ahimsa Silk. Inspired by Ghandi, Rajaiah applied his 40 years of sericulture experience and the theories behind the ahimsa way of life to the making of silk. 

 

 

He found that it was possible to create silk without killing the silk worms and began weaving ahimsa silk in 1990. In 2001 his company began marketing the silk and it continues to gain popularity both in India and abroad.

 

The silk

 

“The silkworm caterpillar builds its cocoon by producing and surrounding itself with a long, continuous fibre, or filament. Liquid secretions from two large glands within the insect emerge from the spinneret, a single exit tube in the head, hardening upon exposure to air and forming twin filaments composed of fibroin, a protein material. A second pair of glands secretes sericin, a gummy substance that cements the two filaments together.

Silk is a continuous filament within each cocoon, having a usable length of about 600 to 900 metres (2,000 to 3,000 feet). It is freed by softening the binding sericin and then locating the filament end and unwinding, or reeling, the filaments from several cocoons at the same time, sometimes with a slight twist, forming a single strand. Several silk strands, each too thin for most uses, are twisted together to make thicker, stronger yarn in the process called throwing, producing various yarns differing according to the amount and direction of the twist imparted."

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

 

This is the only way to weave the most common type of silk fabric - which is smooth, fine and lustrous - and can be woven from mulberry, tussar or moga silk. 

 

Ahimsa silk production is a humane alternative to this conventional silk production. It can be produced from any type of silk. In this method, silk cocoons are only harvested and processed after the moth has hatched the cocoon. The moth secretes a liquid to dissolve a hole from which to hatch, breaking the long, continuous silk fibre into shorter staples. These shorter staples must be spun together; just as wool or cotton staples are spun into yarn. The high sheen and lustre of the silk are exchanged for a thicker and more textured cloth. 

From an economic perspective, ahimsa silk is around double the price of regular silk. An extra 10 days are required to allow the larvae to grow into moths and hatch. Moreover, ahimsa silk cocoons yield around one-sixth of the fibre volume.

 

Know your silks

 

There are 4 main types of silk made commercially in India: mulberry, eri, tussar and muga. Here we explore these plus several rarer types of silk.

Mulberry Silk

 

Description: From the moth Bombyx mori which feeds on mulberry leaves. Mulberry silk is a domesticated species of silk and accounts for around 90% of global silk production. 70% of this comes from China; India is the world’s second largest producer.

 

Is it non-violent? Both ahimsa and non-ahimsa mulberry silk are produced commercially. Ahimsa mulberry is produced by allowing the moths to hatch the cocoons before harvesting. Therefore, ahimsa mulberry silk is a spun silk, not a filament silk; making it very different in texture and lustre from 'typical' silk.

 

Non-ahimsa mulberry, which represents almost the entire global production and is usually made at a very large, commercial scale, is produced by boiling cocoons with the lava still inside. Single, continues filaments are pulled off the cocoon to create very long fibres. A few of these fibres are twisted together and woven to create highly lustrous silk.

 

Origin: In India, 6 states account for 97% of the country's raw mulberry silk production: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and West Bengal.

 

Eri Silk

 

Description: From the moths Samia ricini and Philosamia ricin. Eri silk, along with mulberry silk, is the only fully domesticated silk worm. The name "eri" is derived from the Assamese word "era", which means "castor", as the silkworm feeds on castor plants. Also called ahimsa, endi or errandi in India. Eri silk worms also produce red eri cocoons; it’s not clear whether this derives from a diet of ficus citrifolia or from polymorphism.

 

Is it non-violent? All eri silk is ahimsa. Often, ahimsa is used synonymously with eri, though the two words refer to very different things. Due to the highly irregular, uneven spinning of the eri silk cocoon by the worm, it is not possible to produce filament silk by boiling and drawing out continuous, single threads (as it is commercially done with other silks). Cocoons are only harvested once the moth has hatched For this reason, it is popular among Buddhist monks. Because it’s made from shorter staples, eri is always a spun silk.

 

Origin: North, East and Northeast India (plus China, Japan and Thailand).

 

 

Tussar Silk

 

Description: From the moth genus Antheraea, this is a wild silk that lives in the forests of north India. Other names include tussah, tushar, tassar, tussore, tasar, tussur, tusser and kosa.

 

Is it non-violent? Both ahimsa and non-ahimsa tussar are produced commercially. Ahimsa tussar is produced by allowing the moths to hatch the cocoons before harvesting. 

Non-ahimsa tussar, which represents most of India’s production, is produced by boiling cocoons with the moth still inside. Single, continues filaments are pulled off the cocoon to create very long fibres. A few of these fibres are twisted together and woven to create lustrous silk. 

 

Origin: North and Northeast India (plus China, Japan, Sri Lanka).

 

Balkal Silk

 

Description: From the stem of the tussar silk cocoon that holds the cocoon to the tree stem where the moths weave their cocoons. A very rare silk produced only on a small scale and in India.

 

Is it non-violent? All balkal silk is ahimsa. Because the silk is produced from the stem, not the cocoon, no silk worm is killed.

 

Origin (India): Northeast India

 

 

The history of ahimsa as an ethical tenet

 

 

"In Jainism, ahimsa is the standard by which all actions are judged. For a householder observing the small vows (anuvrata), the practice of ahimsa requires that one not kill any animal life. However, for an ascetic observing the great vows (mahavrata), ahimsa entails the greatest care to prevent the ascetic from knowingly or unknowingly being the cause of injury to any living soul (jiva); thus, ahimsa applies not only to human beings and to large animals but also to insects, plants, and microbes.

 

The interruption of another jiva’s spiritual progress causes one to incur karma—the accumulated effects of past actions, conceived by Jains as a fine particulate substance that accretes upon the jiva—keeping one mired in samsara, the cycle of rebirth into mundane earthly existence. Not only physical violence but also violent or other negative thoughts result in the attraction of karma.

Many common Jainist practices, such as not eating or drinking after dark or the wearing of cloth mouth covers (mukhavastrika) by monks, are based on the principle of ahimsa.

 


Though the Hindus and Buddhists never required so strict an observance of ahimsa as the Jains, vegetarianism and tolerance toward all forms of life became widespread in India. The Buddhist emperor Ashoka, in his inscriptions of the 3rd century BCE, stressed the sanctity of animal life.

 

Ahimsa is one of the first disciplines learned by the student of Yoga and is required to be mastered in the preparatory stage (yama), the first of the eight stages that lead to perfect concentration.

 

In the early 20th century Mohandas K. Gandhi extended ahimsa into the political sphere as satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance to a specific evil."

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

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Based in Delhi & working with women makers, NGOs & master artisans across the width & breadth of this extraordinary land, House of Wandering Silk reimagines India's most beautiful textile traditions.

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