What's On Your To Do List at 5 AM? Feeding Hungry Little Caterpillars?

How can one woman, get so much done before 8 am? My thoughts exactly as I listened to Seintie’s story. The sun rises at 4:30 am. By 5 am the kitchen fire is lit and the cooking for breakfast and lunch begins. Other tasks, like feeding the chickens, pigs, and gathering eggs, fetching water, packing meals for school children and husband’s tiffin are a daily routine.

There’s one more responsibility that starts before 8 am. A task, that isn’t so routine for Seintie because it comes and goes with a cycle throughout the year. In her small village of Diwon, in a remote part of India, farmers are engaged in an activity that can be termed ‘heritage cottage industry’, that of rearing silkworms of a very special kind.

Kong Tharina talking with Joanna | Muezart
Families in villages across Ri Bhoi district of Meghalaya, a state in the Northeast of India bordering Bangladesh, have been rearing Eri silkworms for generations.

Despite pursuing silkworm rearing for generations, this activity provides only a supplemental income to their agriculture livelihood. Why is it so?  Which silk and which part of India? Let us find out.

A Very Special Silk

Silk is synonymous with softness, luxury, exquisiteness and much more. But did you know that the silkworms (caterpillars) that produce the fine silk fiber are boiled live before the fiber is spun into yarn and woven into silk? 

This happens for all silks, except for Eri Silk. Yes, Eri silk is the only silk where the silk fiber is spun into yarn after the moths break free from the cocoons.  Eri silk is therefore referred to as ‘ahimsa’ silk (‘non-violent’ silk). The eri silk yarn is strong and can be woven into a material which is sturdy and easy to maintain. Of late the world fashion industry is starting to become aware of this cruelty-free silk.

Moth emerging out of cocoon | MuezartThe Moth emerges from the cocoon and flies to another place to lay hundreds of eggs. The cycle continues.

From Cocoons to silk material – the metamorphosis

Natural silk yarns are spun from cocoons of silkworms. The eri silk yarn spinning process has two parts:

The first part, of producing the cocoons, is pre-programmed by Nature.

  • The Eri silkworms’ eggs hatch and become eri silkworms
  • After an about a month of feeding on castor leaves the eri silkworms go off food and start spinning their cocoons. It is magical to see how the cocoons form.
    Silkworm forming cocoon | Muezart
  • A fuzzy, wispy, continuous strand is thrown out of the silkworm’s mouth. The silkworm moves its head vigorously in the shape of 8 during this process, resulting in an oval-shaped cocoon, with a hollow inside with just enough space for the silkworm to turn into a moth.
  • The moth pushes her way through the cocoon leaving it’s home to lay eggs.

The second part is taken over by women where the silk yarn is spun from the cocoon.

  • The empty cocoons are collected and boiled in soapy water to remove a gummy substance and are then flattened and dried.
    Flattened cocoons | Muezart
  • The fully dried flat ‘cocoon cake’ is ready for spinning into yarn
    Flattened cocoon | Muezart
  • Eri silk yarn is either handspun, using a spindle, spinning wheel, or spun by machines in mills.

Most farmers who rear Eri silkworms own a spindle and know the art of spinning. Many can weave too. A holistic knowledge handed down generations.

Spinner and a weaver | MuezartThe local women use silk yarn to spin and weave beautiful fabric into traditional shawls. 

How Muezart Got Hooked Into Eri Silk

When the Muezart team discovered that most women in Ri Bhoi district own a spindle to spin yarn and know how to weave that got our attention. It ignited our curiosity to know more about this tradition of our Khasi people. We got down to the grass-roots to understand what was happening to the entire eco-system and industry around Eri silk.

3 things that typically happen with cocoons from Meghalaya.

  1. Cocoons are sold to friends in the village who want to spin.
  2. Cocoons are processed at home and hand-spun into beautiful fine yarn with a spindle. The yarn is either used for weaving at home or sold to a friend who has received an “order” for a hand-woven shawl or stole.
  3. Cocoons are sold to middlemen who travel from the state of Assam and make a business out of buying cocoons low and selling high to mechanized mills located in Assam.

We could see a lost opportunity for our own people. In February of 2019, Muezart became a player. We stepped in to make a change through a conscious business. Instead of letting our talented people and natural resources of Meghalaya join the decline of hand-made and natural made. Muezart saw an opportunity for our own people to flourish.

 As we at Muezart are locals too, unlike the middlemen who come from another state, we would like to create a livelihood for the silkworm rearers in our State that benefit them. Not let a middleman skim all the profit with their shrewd ways.” says Khraw Mynsong, an Associate in Muezart who is driven by wanting to bring this change.

 Khraw with the cocoon rearers | Muezart

The other crisis”, Khraw says, “is the non-violent silk. We want the world to know there is another type of silk. Most yarn companies don’t even differentiate the silk type. They simply say “silk”. We are proud of what we have and want the world to know that from within hundreds and hundreds of families we can revive and regenerate our local Eri silk tradition. We have already announced our goal to procure 600 kilos of Eri silk before the winter season sets in.”

As Khraw travels and visits villages word gets around. People like Sientie get inspired and decide to commit to growing more castor plants and raise more cocoons.

A day in the life of an eri silkworm farmer

Today Khraw visits many homes where raising eri silkworms is routine. It is as common as one would expect a farmer to have a chicken coop or be rearing sheep or pigs! The difference is, eri silkworms are part of their household. In some homes, even an indoor activity. They are reared in a corner in the kitchen or even in their living rooms.

Seintie is married and a mother of three. She is a doula, farmer, cocoon rearer, spinner, and weaver.

At 5 am she rises, starts preparing the food for the day. During the silkworm rearing season, she needs to care for her worms at least 4 times a day. The morning after kitchen chores, between 6-7 am, she will go to her garden and collect fresh castor leaves for the worms.

Silkworms food leaves | Muezart

Silkworms feedind on the castor leaves | Muezart

The worms will munch on one bunch and be hungry again before noon. She will gather another bunch and check on the worms from 12-1 pm. At 4 pm she will repeat the same.

When the worms are aggressively feeding she may even repeat this schedule 4 times per day. She must remove any uneaten leaves and always supply fresh. If she doesn’t stay on top of their hungry schedule they will not grow properly. She also needs to check on the worms and protect them from ants and predators like lizards. She uses mosquito nets to cover the baskets to keep the lizards away.

It is hard work, so her 2 daughters, ages 16 and 19 also help with taking care of the worms. It is a family affair. Raising the worms provides a supplemental income 3 to 4 times out of the year. She can even raise the cocoons in the winter since the castor continues to grow in her garden, but the process is twice as slow with the cold slowing the worm growth down.

Before she met Khraw she would only raise cocoons and spin yarn and sell to her friends and local village people who had weaving orders for Eri silk. Today she looks forward to the consistent orders she will receive from Muezart for her cocoons. The additional income is a blessing to her family.

The story doesn’t stop with Cocoons

What will Muezart do with our first 600 kilos of Eri silk cocoons? Women across these same villages of Ri Bhoi are hand spinning beautiful soft yarn.

Oh, did we tell you? Some of these talented women who are spinning this yarn know the art of natural dyeing using colors from flowers, leaves, and barks! That is another story altogether, waiting to be told!

Naturally dyeing the yarn | Muezart