India is the biggest consumer of silk and the second-largest producer of it. The silk industry must thank the women of India for their eternal love for the fiber as saris remain the biggest driver of consumption. The use of silks is intricately woven into our religious and social rituals, be it our weddings or temple customs, thus ensuring a regular demand for the fabric.
While China remains the biggest producer of silk, India has its own indigenous varieties, mostly wild silk, collectively called Vanya silk. It includes Tussar silk from the Tussar Belt in states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bengal, Muga from Assam, and Eri from the rest of the Northeast.
With limited production and huge aspiration value, silk has been a mark of luxury since historical times, that everyone dreams to be wrapped in. It has been used for all kinds of luxury products, be it for wearing or decorative items.
The silk fiber is a pure protein that is secreted by the caterpillar of the silk moth or silkworm. In fact, the worms themselves are treated as delicacies to be enjoyed in silk-growing tribal areas. Many tribes value these worms more than the silk thread of the cocoon. Pure protein opens up many opportunities with silk beside the traditional textiles. Medicine and cosmetics immediately come to our mind, besides the growing protein-based food industry. You can easily look up silk-protein-infused shampoos, conditioners and soaps.
Bio-medical uses of the fiber include its use as a suture material for surgeries as the silk thread is known for its natural strength, stable thermal properties and is biodegradable. The silk protein’s molecular structure is similar to the collagen fibers of our skin. Sericin and fibroin are the two extracts from silk protein used in skincare products. Sericin, known for its antioxidant properties, is used for providing a protective layer that helps retain moisture while fibroin helps repair any damaged skin cells. Sericin is the primary ingredient in healing and haircare products.
The healing of wounds is another area where silk proteins are being successfully used. Sericin, as the glue that binds the silk thread at the cocoon stage, is in fact a by-product of the silk production process. Silk proteins also contribute to many bio-materials for a wide range of uses.
Even within the textile domain, there are opportunities to experiment with new weaves like silk denim, woven using silk thread. It can be a whole range of smart casuals for work and casual wear, which combines the comfort of denim with the softness of silk. There are many other weaves and patterns that you can see at fashion institutes and fashion shows. It would take some entrepreneurs to make them mainstream products and businesses. Due to its natural strength, silk fabric is used as a material for parachutes, hot air balloons, and in precision machinery products. However, there are many more such uses possible for this natural material.
Silk has thermal properties that keep it cool in summers and warm in winters, making it a textile for all weathers. Using this creatively, upholstery, furnishings and light woolens designer can use silk effectively. It is also well suited for kids’ products that insulate infants from weather changes with the natural softness of silk. Socks and other products made using knitted fiber from Eri silk thread are better suited to handle body odor.
With the temporary pause that the pandemic has put on the Chinese silk sector, it is a great opportunity for the Indian industry to ramp up its production of raw fibre and reduce our dependence on imports. Efforts are being made to increase the production of more popular Mulberry silk. By promoting silk farming, the base of indigenous silks can also be expanded. Eri silkworms feed on castor leaves, which are found abundantly in many regions of India, though production is primarily concentrated in the Northeast as of now. Being a small-scale cottage industry dominated by women, it can be scaled up with a bit of awareness, training and support.
Silk is a traditional sector but there are also opportunities for tech entrepreneurs. The cocoon markets are already digitized with all auctions happening online, but there are still spaces to plug with automation—such as end-to-end supply chain automation. There is a need for dependable authentication and verification technology as fake silk is widely sold with names like art silk or semi silk.
Overall, it is the right time to work on increasing the supply of raw silk, designing innovative products using fiber, and infusing this ancient tradition into our lifestyle while leveraging digital platforms. What you can do with this lustrous fabric is just limited by your own imagination!
First Published in The New Indian Express on May 10, 2022