Book Review: Understanding Silk in South Asia

South Asian Ways of Silk: A Patchwork of Biology, Manufacture, Culture and History – A Book by O. Zethner, R. Koustrup, D. Barooah, N. Barooah, D.K. Subba, M.M. Win, S. Tiwari, Y. Dhoj, G. Ali Bajwa, R. Ali Bajwa and D. Ahangama & published in 2015 by BookBell in India.

South Asian Ways of Silk offers everything one wants to know about silk in South Asia. A team of 12 authors from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Denmark, present a unique collection of South Asia country specific information on silk. Such information would normally be dispersed across time and geography but is now transformed into a coherent read which fills gaps in our knowledge and understanding of sericulture and silk production in South Asia. The book delves into all that makes silk desirable, its intricate ways of manufacture, its heritage dating back thousands of years and its value in the marketplace.

The volume covers several aspects of sericulture, starting from a silkworms’ lifecycle, its biology and cultivation, moving on to silk manufacturing, discussing various kinds of silk products and their uses and finally the history and culture surrounding silk production, its use and trade. The authors also focus on the new ways of producing and using silk products in a world increasingly concerned about environmental and ethical standards. Even though the discussion becomes quite technical at places, appealing to specialists, it remains accessible to a large spectrum of readers.

The detailed South Asian country-specific accounts of how sericulture evolved (or didn’t) and its place in the global silk network encapsulates the diversity and intricacy of silk production across the region and provides readers a chance for cross-border learning. The deep dive into the rich variety of traditional patterns and designs of high quality silk fabrics across South Asian shows the uniqueness of country/sub-region in sericulture, inspiring fashion designers across the world. The book shows that based on silk’s special qualities a number of new uses of silk have also emerged in the fields of medicine and cosmetics, amongst others. The finer silk fabrics are, however, still used for clothes.

To facilitate learning from each other’s experiences, the book suggests ways to improve silk production and highlights good examples from the region. A case in point is the discussion on Mulberry and Eri Silk. Mulberry remains the most common type of silk, which is easy to acquire, but is often produced in an unethical way, by killing the silkworms in their cocoons to extract the long fiber – a process discussed in detail in the book. Eri Silk, whose production is expanding rapidly across North East India is also known as ‘piece silk’. The worms are not destroyed and are allowed to continue their lifecycle to emerge as moths. This form of silk is less shiny than the mulberry version but more similar to soft cotton and hence a good replacement for it. It is also easier to grow, requiring a fraction of the water needed to cultivate cotton. Eri silk cultivation may have a future in several other countries too, especially those looking for a more ethically produced version of silk.

“South Asian Ways of Silk” sheds light on why India remains the leader in sericulture and why neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan are still far behind. The authors argue that the answer lies in better institutional, religious and bureaucratic factors, including the quality of extension services, in India compared to others. There is much intra-regional learning in this.

The mention of silk road conjures up images of trade caravans in Asia in long gone days. The authors give substance to those images by describing how the culture of silk actually reached different parts of the world where the climate is conducive. The book contains dozens of captivating images, including some old and new photographs (taken mostly by one of the authors, Rie Koustrup), maps and drawings. This helps the reader understand the spread of sericulture in a large region serviced by the silk road.

In 2012, Ole Zethner and wife Rie Koustrup teamed up with Dilip Barooah to write a detailed account of Indian ways of silk. Several years earlier, Zethner and Kousstrap wrote about African ways of silk. This volume builds on and extends that work appealing to silk lovers and sericulture specialists throughout South Asia. In doing so they have created a great platform for South Asians to learn from each other.

Hina Shaikh is a Country Economist at the International Growth Centre (IGC) in Pakistan.