Photo by Dimpy Gogoi

Keepers of a Dyeing Art: The Eri Hand Spinners of Meghalaya and Assam

By Julie Kagti

Theresia and I are sitting on the floor of a bamboo outhouse in Umden village, Meghalaya. Outside, cucumber runners weave through hibiscus flowers under a large jackfruit tree, brightening her daughter Molina’s back garden. We are admiring an old shawl that she created—rearing the eri silkworms, spinning the yarn, dyeing it, and weaving it together. Years later, the subdued burgundy of the piece is still beautiful.

Northeast India is home to many rich textile traditions, largely because of the availability and easier access to natural materials like nettle, cotton, water hyacinth, and indigenous silkworms. Here, weaving was historically a non-commercial activity. Women used to source the fibres, spin and dye the yarn, and then weave fabric for the use of their families.

Women in this region have long been the memory keepers of indigenous arts like textile design. For centuries, these traditions have been passed down orally from mothers and aunts to the new generation of young women. Each community zealously treasures their patterns and colours, guarding these secrets for future weavers.

The process was sustainable then—the women used locally available materials, generated hardly any waste, and caused almost no harm to the environment. Most of the dyes were obtained from plants, rocks, and insects collected from the forests near their homes. The practice of wearing particular costumes for festivals and rituals ensured that these textile practices stayed alive. However, that has changed now with more and more mill spun blended yarns making their way into the market.

Native to the region, eri silk yarn is traditionally used by many tribes in the north east, including the Eastern Himalayan Monpas and the Khasis in Meghalaya. In the past, eri silkworms were reared in small quantities for both food and yarn in agrarian homes in this region. The name ‘eri’ comes from the Assamese word for castor leaves, which is what the worms consume. It’s also known as ‘ahimsa’ or non-violent silk because the open-mouthed cocoons are collected after the moth, known as Samia Ricini, emerges.

Known for its rough texture and matte look, eri is often mistaken for linen. Its demand stems from its warmth and because it absorbs natural dyes well. The resulting colours are vivid and stand the test of time. I still have distinct memories of wrapping myself up in my grandmother’s well-worn eri shawl on cold winter mornings. The warmth and softness of the fabric left a tangible impression, easily conjured up even after all these years.

Behind the Loom

Traditional eri was handspun. The process of converting cocoons to fibre, and then cloth, is a tedious and time consuming one. Cloth covered bamboo mats are placed in quiet corners of a shady storeroom, and castor leaves are placed carefully on top of them. Freshly hatched eggs are placed on these leaves for the silk worms to feast on when they eventually emerge. Harvested cocoons are boiled in water and soda, or other natural alkaline solutions, to remove the dirt particles and soften the cocoon. The boiling also makes the cocoon whiter.

Silk worms devouring the castor plant. Photo by Dimpy Gogoi.

The castor leaves and silkworms spread out on bamboo trays. Photo by Dimpy Gogoi.

They then roll the dry, flattened fibre in one hand while rotating spindles, which resemble tops, in the other. The yarn is dyed using turmeric, lac, various leaves, and flower petals or left natural before being woven into shawls, stoles, or fabric. Finally, it is washed to soften the final product, and dried away from direct sunlight to preserve the vibrancy of the dye.

In many villages in Bijoynagar cluster in Assam and the Ri Bhoi district in Meghalaya, it was a common sight to see women sitting outside their homes, or in groups in the courtyard, around tubs of water. Chatting and keeping an eye on their livestock and children, they used the hard surface of soft stones or vegetables like cucumbers or lemons to pound and flatten the cocoons.

A Place in History

In 1954, after floods plagued Assam, several Marwari traders relocated to Bijoynagar, and saw the potential of eri yarn. This was the beginning of the commercial production of eri fabric. Quickly, Assam became the largest producer of eri silk, and even today, the Bijoynagar cluster produces the largest quantity of eri silk cocoons. This cluster includes Mirza, Chagaon, and Boko—all located on the south bank of the Brahmaputra—which are the main trading centres for this yarn.

Initially, the commercial production was a boon to the women who traditionally created the yarn. At one time, there were about three lakh women spinning the yarn by hand, and weaving for the traders in the Bijoynagar cluster. These women would travel from their small villages by government buses, or even sometimes by foot, to sell their woven pieces directly to the traders in Bijoynagar. It must have taken immense courage to calculate prices without any real entrepreneurial guidance, and to leave their villages to earn their way.

The introduction of small scale mechanised yarn spinning units gradually put a large number of these women out of business. They had already been dealing with low prices, and demands of the traders who controlled the eri fabric market. For example, if a woman was given 300 grams of cocoon and spun 240 grams instead of the expected 250 grams of yarn, the traders would deduct a large amount. Since the rate was already low to begin with, and the process of converting cocoons to fibre was time-consuming and tedious, the practice slowly declined.

Ironically, mechanised mill spun eri yarn costs more than the handspun one. But the mills were faster at producing it. Traditionally, one kilo of eri yarn would take a woman a few weeks to produce as she did it in addition to other domestic work. The same weight spun in a mill can be done in half the time.

Traders were able to create a monopoly, and promoted the mill spun eri yarn as better, more durable, finer, and more consistent to produce. This led to a greater demand for fabric made from the mechanised yarn. In contrast, the women were not organised to act collectively and did not have support from the government or private sector. No one helped them demand better prices for the handspun yarn, or more importantly, promote it. As a result, there are currently only around 5000 women who practise eri weaving, and even less who handspin the yarn.

Current Affairs

It is not just the traditional production of eri yarn that has declined. Over time, mills have begun blending mechanised eri yarn with other fibres including polyester in order to keep costs low.

These cheaper blended yarns have become popular in other countries like Bhutan, China, Tibet, and Nepal. The market for these buyers has shifted to Bhagalpur in Bihar, and Malda district in West Bengal, where mechanised mills churn out eri yarns and fabrics. There is currently a large demand for fine eri sarees that are woven using machine spun eri yarn, which is thinner than the handspun variety.

Though the Bijoynagar cluster continues to produce the largest number of cocoons, the bulk of it is sold to Bhagalpur where it is blended with tussar. Production here is controlled by traders who employ a lot of Bangladeshi refugees, who have settled in the region and work for lower wages.

Most of the women who handspin eri today are older and very few of them have received a formal education. While they are happy to demonstrate their art for visitors, the entrepreneurial spirit of yesteryear hasn’t made a complete comeback.

These days, the main reason that women still spin eri by hand is tradition. There is a sense of resignation about their livelihoods and the prices offered to them.

This is an art that is being relegated to the older generation; with no real incentive available, younger women are less inclined to take it up.

So then what is the future of the traditional spinners? Narmohan Das’s venture, Ahimsa Eri Silk,  in Bijoynagar holds one possible answer. His mother, Chitralekha, sold high-quality natural dyed eri products when he was a child. His father’s income as a farmer was dependent on the weather and harvest. Though his mother’s contribution towards the household expenses was vital, he grew up seeing her and her generation losing their confidence while dealing with the traders.

Narmohan Das with his mother, Chitralekha. Photo by Dimpy Gogoi.

Narmohan joins some of the weavers at work. Photo by Dimpy Gogoi.

Narmohan studied natural dyeing and is now a renowned master dyer who has introduced two unique colours into the market. He holds some command over the domestic and international market for the quality of his fabrics, stoles, and sarees. His venture helps around 700 women bring in an income. He ensures that the prices are fair, does not deduct anything for small loss of yarn, and pays the women more than the current market rate. His customer base is small but loyal. He is currently training three local youths in the art of natural dyeing and the general trade to take over from him when the day comes.

Narmohan is doing his best to encourage the older women to keep spinning eri, and reaching out to younger ones to convince them to practise and make yarn by hand. He also wants to start a training centre where anyone can spend a day or two learning how to rear silkworms, prepare the cocoons, and spin the yarn.

Hard at work spinning eri yarn at home. Photo by Dimpy Gogoi.

Narmohan showcases eri yarn dyed with indigo and leaves. Photo by Dimpy Gogoi.

A Different Outlook

Meanwhile, in Umden village in the Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya, a group of women have started the Umden Pyllun Integrated Village Cooperative Society Ltd with support from the government. The Meghalaya government has been active in providing schemes for women to set up co-operatives, providing space for work sheds and organising design training camps. Similar to the Bijoynagar cluster, the local women are the keepers of the traditional process of creating eri yarn—from rearing of the silk cocoons to making the final products including Ryndia, a traditional shawl, stoles, and Dhara—the traditional two-piece outfit worn by women of the Khasi tribe.

Molina spins eri yarn in an open shed in her backyard. Photo by Gwen Stephens Jones.

Showing off a stunning eri dhara. Photo by Gwen Stephens Jones.

The centre of operations for the cooperative is Blandina Rympeit’s home. The chairperson of the cooperative, her verandah and courtyard are often filled with women soaking the cocoons in big tubs of water, and flattening them by hand to spin. Some weavers ply their trade in a shed behind her house. During my visit, there was a hand embroidery workshop being conducted in the cooperative shed. 15 to 20 women from different age groups came together to learn, enthusiastically making dainty samplers.

The final products made by the women are sold through a shop that belongs to the cooperative. The members are very proud of it, and are happy to show visitors their range of products. They even make it a point to introduce the person who made a particular product to potential customers.

This is the beauty of a community enterprise where each individual is a stakeholder and profits are equally shared.

In the midst of an embroidery workshop conducted by the members of the Umden cooperative. Photo by Gwen Stephens Jones.

The women of the Umden cooperative flattening the cocoons. Photo by Gwen Stephens Jones.

Weaving on a fixed loom. Photo by Gwen Stephens Jones.

Muezart, another organisation based in Meghalaya, founded by an American couple, Joanna and Ralph Budelman, is helping locals sell their products to an international market. The Budelmans stumbled upon eri yarn when they visited Umden village, and began interacting with the women weaving it. Inspired, they reached out to the women in the village and those living nearby to form a venture called Muezart. The women spin the yarn and the company helps them by selling it online.

The women produce smaller quantities and are able to command a reasonable price. They are not threatened by the large traders who dominate the commercial sector unlike the weavers in Assam. It is still a thing of pride and prestige in this region to own a Dhara set made out of pure eri silk, and have the end tassels finished by hand.

Due to the pandemic, sales have been slow and Muezart, like many other organisations, are looking to diversify into more products. During my visit to Umden, Molina, a Muezart employee, gave me a lovely demonstration and invited me to share a delicious lunch at her home. She learnt the art of spinning, using natural dyes and weaving from her mother, Theresia. Molina’s three daughters also know how to spin eri, and help their mother when required. They are very proud of what their mother and grandmother do. Molina is keen that they choose weaving as a profession as well.

There is a growing demand, both in the domestic and international market, for traditional sustainable products that are created by indigenous communities. But the bridge between the makers and market will only truly take shape when there is a better understanding among consumers about what it takes to create a product, and to consciously promote ethical and sustainable practices.

About the author

Julie Kagti spent her childhood in the tea plantations of Assam, embedded in the semi-tropical forests of the Brahmaputra valley. Julie had spent an abundant amount of time with her grandmother learning to weave. This sparked her career path for the next twenty-five years: an entrepreneur, designer, and teacher in the textile industry. She still continues to weave customised handwoven tapestries and participate in art exhibitions.

Now a wife and mother to two, Julie has returned to her roots, using her innate understanding (and love) for the region’s languages and customs to take travellers along on these sparsely explored paths with the belief that travel must benefit the communities living in the region and promote rural economy. She curates cultural and walking tours mainly to the northeast of India under her venture, Curtain Call Adventures, launched in 2017.

You can follow her on Instagram.