By Kiran Badola
Castor, an evergreen perennial, grows in Dehradun in the wild as a weed. This plant is seen prevalent in inhabited areas, too, for instance alongside the Bindal Road near the Cantonment area and Doon School. Eri Silk worms feed voraciously on Castor leaves. The entire life-cycle of an Eri Silk moth is completed on the Castor plant! During the Chrysalis stage, the spewed protein fibre can be boiled and spun into yarn for weaving textiles. The Pupae and Larvae are seldom eaten by Tribals, whereas, naturally, a mature Moth cuts the Cocoon open to leave for its first flight.
Eri silk is a staple fibre unlike some other silks that are processed as a continuous filament. It is warm during winter and cool during summer. The look and feel of Eri silk closely approximates that of cotton and it is spun and woven in much the same ways as cotton and wool. Eri silk is rarely reeled. The fibres in the cocoon are like a tiny bale of cotton, all wound together and tangled, so spun Eri silk has a very unusual quality. Depending on how it is spun and woven, it can give a very woolly result, or a tight strong fibre like linen.
It behaves in spinning and weaving much like the cellulose based one. The aforementioned features make Eri textiles unique. Eri silk is heavier than other silks and blends well with wool and cotton. Due to its amazing thermal properties, it is warm and insulating like cotton or wool. The very properties unique to Eri Silk were an inspiration to create the book “Eri Silk Cocoon to Cloth”, co-authored with Dr Peigler.
Spun out of staple fibres with slubs, it lends a khadi texture to the soft Ecru yarn. A range of textiles can be woven on looms out of these Eri silk yarns which come naturally in Ecru and Reddish colours, dependent on the type of Castor leaves the worm feeds on, green or burgundy.
The characteristic fibre properties are: Soft, moisture absorbent, thermal, breathable, dense, elastic, strong, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and blends well with other natural fibres. This fibre leaves no carbon foot-print and is biodegradable. Eri alleviates soil erosion, grows in degraded land and reduces global warming since Carbon sequestration increases in this plant.
To sum up, Nature has made conducive conditions for Castor to thrive with minimal care, on which feed the ever so voracious silkworms, larvae of the silk moth. Metamorphosis of these larvae to a hard shelled protein Pupa/Chrysalis requires a protective layer, which the larva exudes to tide over unfavorable conditions. And this is the silk laden Cocoon from which we humans weave structures, while the young Moth escapes. Such is the beauty of nature which moves in cycles relentlessly, ever so giving.
The Uttarakhand Government and Industry needs to concentrate on the use of this natural resource for creating new job opportunities, open new avenues for export and at the same time stop erosion of soils from road sides.
(Kiran Badola is a Textile Designer and author)