In India, silk is considered to be auspicious. The Indian bride wraps herself in a silk saree. And where adversity does not allow this, brides have been known to wear a small token piece of silk on the wedding attire. The dead are cremated, where possible, in garments of silk. Silk is considered to be pleasing to the gods. "Silk is the holy cloth. It is what you wear if you want to touch G0d," says Chhotalal Salvi, grand master of the Patola weaving family, the Salvis, of Gujarat. Silk is pleasing to the gods and confers beauty and comfort to human beings.
A Dictionary of Silk in India is for anyone who would like to know something of silk and silk weaving in India. While written in layman’s terms and style, the student of textile, too, may find something of value here.
Nesa Arumugam (aka Nesa Eliezer) has a deep and abiding love for Indian textiles. As a freelance writer, she has published more than 400 articles in magazines in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and India. Other books published: Recipes of the Jaffna Tamils, Cooking for Jey, A Tale of Two Journeys and The Meddling Monkey and Other Animal Tales. Also Silk Sarees of Tamil Nadu. She ran a Saree Shop (Ashwin Australia) from her home in Melbourne, Australia, for twenty years, importing the finest traditions of Indian silks. Her many stage productions included A Dream of the Drape, the story of the saree.
I have had a long love—affair with Silk — especially with Indian silk. Over the years the fascination with the art of silk-weaving in India grew. As a person with little or no technical knowledge of weaving or sericulture, I have, over the years, tried to learn as much as I can about this many-splendoured “spit of a worm".
This glossary has been the compilation of a lay person, who has been completely devoted to the silks of India. It is presented with the hope that other lay persons like myself will find it useful in understanding something of this wonderful natural fabric. But I hope that professional ‘silk persons’ and textile students will find something of interest in here, too.
It is by no means exhaustive. How can it possibly be? It is as complete as I could make it. This glossary is to be taken as one woman’s love for Indian silk and her desire to understand silk weaving in India. And to share it for the use of fellow lovers of silk. I have, therefore, avoided the use of highly technical terms and kept to the language of the lay person.
The section A Glossary of Handwoven Silk Sarees has been added because that is what we think of when we say “Silk” in India — sarees and scarves. Here again, the glossary is far from exhaustive. No country has been so imaginatively creative or extensive in the production, embellishment and designing of silk fabric as India. So it is well nigh impossible to encompass her great output in a limited document such as this.
I thank the many weavers, textile designers, technologists, dyers, silk merchants and the Weavers Service Centres in many parts of India who have been generous in adding to my knowledge of silk over the years. Also the silk farmers and staff at Sidhlaghatta, near Bangalore, in Karnataka, who allowed me to take the photographs for the section on sericulture and shared their knowledge. Thanks also to the friendship and help of Kumaran Silks of 12 Nageswara Rao Road, T Nagar, Chennai, for having facilitated my meeting with silk persons in many parts of India. And, finally, I thank my friend, John Ratna Eliezer, whose consistent help and encouragement has been invaluable in my work over the years.
It is my sincere hope that this little dictionary will be of service to all those who love silk in general, and Indian silk in particular.
"Silk". The very word slides off the tongue, escaping the mouth like a whisper. It conjures up all the images of a love song in the mind of the wearer. Little wonder, then, that for centuries it has remained the most desirable of fabrics.
Legends, myths and trails of history are woven into this sensuous textile. Like the romance of its first discovery, silk has had a magical hold over the human mind and imagination. It is said that the young Chinese Empress Lei-Tze (reputed to be only 14 years old at the time) was taking tea in her garden more than 4,000 years ago. Into her hot cup of tea fell a cocoon from a mulberry tree. The heat made the cocoon unravel into a strand of the finest fibre, much to the wonder of the young Empress! It was the cocoon of the Silk Moth. How wonderful if this fine strand could be woven into a fabric, she thought. And thus, with the help and support of her Emperor, the great Shih Huang-di, a great innovator and the builder of the Great Wall of China, was born sericulture - the rearing of silkworms. So precious was this fabric that Lei- Tze was venerated later as Shih Ling Shi, the Goddess of Silk and Silk Weavers. It makes a delightful story, the truth be what it may. Silk became the exclusive pride of China for more than two thousand years.
This wonderful fabric was kept secret in China for centuries, known to few and divulging the secret was punishable by torture and death. China became the sole custodian of fine silk. Travellers and adventurers travelled along The Silk Road from Europe to China to obtain this fabric for emperors and queens, for their lords and genteel ladies - and at great price. China is by repute credited with the discovery of Silk.
But the story of Silk has many chapters. There appears to have been silk, albeit wild silk, produced in India from ancient times. At the foothills of the Himalayas, in Kashmir and Bengal, silk vestments were known from before the Christian era. These were sent as gifts and tributary to many a king in other parts of India. Called kosa or kauseya in Sanskrit, Tussar silk of the wild moth, was in common usage in Northern India.
In India, silk is considered to be auspicious. The Indian bride wraps herself in a silk saree. And where adversity does not allow this, brides have been known to wear a small token piece of silk on the wedding attire. The dead are cremated, where possible, in garments of silk. Silk is considered to be pleasing to the gods. "Silk is the holy cloth. It is what you wear if you want to touch God," says Chhotalal Salvi, grand master of the Patola weaving family, the Salvis,' of Gujarat. Silk is pleasing to the gods and confers beauty and comfort to human beings.
Silk is also a desirable fabric for more practical reasons:
• Being a protein fibre it is akin to human skin and feels wonderful next to the body.
• The filament of a silk yarn acts like a prism. It catches and radiates light, giving it its characteristic lustre, subtle and gleaming, imbuing it with class and elegance.
• Its resilience is surprising for so delicate a fabric and its care is simpler than the wearer thinks. Being fairly wrinkle resistant, it hand-washes simply, dries fast.
• It is an excellent fabric to wear in both cool times and warm days as it insulates without bulk. In warm weather, it can absorb 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp, allowing your skin to breathe. At the same time silk undergarments are more than vanity in the cold; they keep you warm.
• It is non-allergenic. Its protein structure makes it hypoallergenic, more than any other fabric.
• And of course it lends beauty to the wearer. Its delicate, supple folds, its elegant fluidity that flatters the body and its soft luminosity render silk truly the queen of textiles.
This handbook is an expression of respect for the fabric and for those who produce it.
It deals with
• Words used in the universal production of silk, which are also applicable to silk production in India. The terms may not always be used in common parlance and may be known by the vernacular words, but the terms are as relevant here as elsewhere in the world of silk.
• Words of particular reference to Indian silk and its production.
• Words of design, implements, embellishment, weave, etc. used in India.
• The production of silk yarn in itself is a mystical and wonderful story. So some explanation of the processes, from silk moth to silk yarn, has been included in the section on sericulture.
• When one thinks of Indian silk, one thinks of 'sarees'. So a somewhat limited glossary of the well-known traditions of sarees has been touched upon, the complete list being beyond the scope of knowledge of the writer.
Most of the knowledge for this compilation has been from books too numerous to list, having been collected and verified over many years with no meticulous records of bibliography having been kept, though the notebooks were full! The rest of it has been gleaned and collected first hand from weavers, dyers, sericulturalists, textile technologists, embroiderers, the Weavers Service Centres, silk merchants and others directly involved in this wonderful process. While by no means complete, it will lead the reader to further his/her knowledge through wider and more specialized works.
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