Years ago my mother gifted me a silk shawl; the fabric that I held in my hand was coarse. Nothing like any silk fabric I had worn so far. Guessing my disappointment, mother told me that this shawl will get better with time. The more I use and wash the cloth, the softer (and stronger) it will get. This was 6 years ago and the shawl comes out every winter, more stronger, softer and shinier. That’s eri silk for you. One of the three wild silks from Assam. Commonly known as Assam silk, Muga, Eri and Pat are three types of silk produced only in Assam.

Shutterstock
Hand loom: in the process of weaving a mekhela-chador
Hand loom: in the process of weaving a mekhela-chador

When we talk about Assam’s silk, it’s not just the raw material; the art of weaving is also included. Together they make for a product that was, once upon a time, good enough to get royal patronage. Speak of silk and Sualkuchi will cross our minds. Located in Kamrup district of Assam, Sualkuchi was and still is an important centre for silk weaving. The place rose to fame during Ahom rule and is arguably the most striking feature of Assam’s culture and tradition.

But the history of Assam’s silk goes further back than the Ahom era. Be it the records by Huen Sang on the silk trade in Kamrupa or reference of Assam’s silk in Kautilya’s Arthashastra—all spoke about the production of only the best kind of silk that ever was there.

Shutterstock
A Bihu dancer in a traditional muga silk mekhela-chador
A Bihu dancer in a traditional muga silk mekhela-chador

Muga silk
This variety of silk was reserved only for use by the royal families! Muga silk is a protected geographical indication (GI) to Assam. Known for its durability and lustre, muga silk owns the top position where demand is concerned. After every wash (yes, it can be hand-washed) the lustre increases, because of which it is mostly used in products like saris and traditional Assamese mekhala-chador.

Shutterstock
Eri silk thread ready for weaving
Eri silk thread ready for weaving

Eri silk
Let’s call it vegan silk—won’t be far-fetched for sure. This silk is produced without causing any harm to the silkworm. The cocoon of Ailanthus silk moth is harvested only after the moth leaves. Somewhat woolly in texture, eri silk has thermal qualities which makes it perfect for both winter and summer use. In India, apart from Assam, eri silk is produced in other Indian states like Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and other northeastern states. Very durable, strong, soft texture and moisture absorbent, these qualities make eri silk a preferred choice for traditional Assamese saris, curtains, bed covers and even clothes for babies! This is one versatile fabric.

Pat silk
A product of pat silkworm, this variety of silk is also called mulberry silk as the larvae prefers white mulberry leaves for food. The silk comes in natural white or off-white, has excellent durability and is known for its glossy quality. Pretty Assamese mekhala-chadors are often made with pat silk.