Bhagalpur lies on the banks of the river Ganges in the Indian state of Bihar. Known as Silk City, it has been a centre of silk production for hundreds of years. These days it is particularly well known for producing fabrics made of a unique type of silk known as 'wild silk'. Wild silk comes from the cocoons of silkworms that live in forests. Much of it is produced in the forested area around Bhagalpur, where it provides an incentive for people to conserve the trees.
Wild silk comes in various shades of brown, beige and gold, reflecting the different trees the silkworms have fed on. The threads are shorter than those of mulberry silk and are hand spun rather than reeled. This creates a more 'slubby' fabric with a subtle pattern created by the different thread lengths and thicknesses.
I visited Bhagalpur in 2015 and spent some time with a producer group linked to SEWA, a trade union that supports self-employed women across India with healthcare, loans, and leadership training. SEWA was founded in 1972 by Ghandian and civil rights leader Ela Bhatt. Since then, it has grown to over two million members and has received numerous awards.
The cooperative I visited has been weaving silk for generations. After a six-hour car journey, it was a delight to spend time with them and to see the silk making process, which women perform alongside their husbands.
The cooperative makes several types of silk. Most of these are 'wild' silks, such as tussar and ghicha. However, they also make a type called 'matka', which consists of the short threads that have been discarded in the process of making mulberry silk. Matka silk is white, like mulberry silk, but with a more 'slubby' texture due to the shortness of the threads. This results in a beautifully soft fabric that is like a cross between cotton and cashmere.
Bhagalpur is home to around 30,000 handloom weavers, many of whom have exceptional skills. However, competition from factories is making it hard for these weavers to earn a living. Organisations like SEWA are helping weavers by providing them with insurance, childcare and training to build their capacity.
To shop our wild silk and matka silk collections, click here.