Eri Silk in Meghalaya: The humble heritage of the floor loom

Eri silk, or ryndia as it is known in Meghalaya, is a tangible reflection of the rural communities it is produced in. It is part of the tradition, the livelihood and the cultural heritage of the Northeast region, differing slightly between the various ethnic groups and their distinct methods of production. Assamese eri is more widely known, since they have much larger production and are more commercially organised. In Meghalaya however, eri has a slightly different quality and heavier texture to it, perhaps in response to the cooler climate, and certainly as a result of the traditional loom used to produce it. This blog post is to explain the process in Meghalaya, to celebrate the simple yet unique heritage of the floor loom.

The Ri Bhoi District in Meghalaya is on the border of the humid plains of Assam, it is lush and fertile, with picturesque villages and stunning views. Villagers working hard on the land, fields of rice, endless hills scattered with tea gardens and pineapple plants, turmeric, ginger and many other produce. The villages are all agriculture based, and weaving has only recently become a full time profession for some artisans, who are realising the market potential of their product.

The quality of eri silk wherever it is produced depends on many human variables. Although easy to cultivate, care must be taken of the silk worms to ensure they never run out of castor plant leaves to feed on and to ensure they are kept clean as they mature to spin their cocoon. The texture of the thread is dictated by the hand and the skill of the spinner, the natural dyes come from the forests near the weavers’ villages and the weaver working with a floor loom made of local bamboo brings her own sense of creativity to the design. The resulting cloth has many variations, ranging from the heavy and somewhat rigid cloth of the thickly spun yarn, to the fine and softer cloth of the more experienced spinner and weaver. Each piece is like a signature of the artisan. It represents the handmade, the natural environment, and the village lifestyle in sync with its surroundings.

The traditional method of weaving eri silk in Meghalaya is on the thain madan, the floor loom. It is a simple structure made entirely of local materials, bamboo and wood. The warp is stretched between 2 sets of wooden posts, tensioned by a bamboo or wooden beam at the beginning and the end of the warp. Before stretching the warp, a rice paste is applied to strengthen the handspun warp threads. The lewi (string heddles) are set up with each new warp to create the shed between the warp threads. This process of setting up the loom takes 2-3 days to complete and one warp is only ever long enough for one shawl. The snad, the reed used to thread the warp threads through and beat the cloth after each pick or row of weft is also bamboo. It is a thin bamboo at the top and bottom, the teeth, or dents creating the comb of the reed, are thin strips of bamboo, held in place by tightly wound cotton.

The thain madan can be set up anywhere, though today most weavers have a designated space for their workshop area in the compound of the home. Weavers without the workshop space will wrap it up and store away after each session rather than leaving it out, since the pigs, chickens, dogs and young children will damage the warps. Today, many weavers have a frame loom as well as the floor loom, a loom widely used across India. While greatly increasing productivity, (especially in the set-up of the loom) it produces a cloth which could be woven in any part of the country. The floor loom, however slow, is the real essence of eri silk of Meghalaya. It enhances the handmade aesthetic with the uneven and slubby texture of the yarn and the handmade reed, it conveys the humble charm of the artisan and her relationship with the craft. Although it may seem awkward to those of us who live a more urban lifestyle, the posture being so close to the ground is second nature to the artisans, women have been weaving in this way in Meghalaya for generations, and many state that they prefer the floor loom to the frame loom.

The floor loom is used by the Khasi sub-tribes in the Ri Bhoi District, while other local ethnic groups will use adaptations of the frame loom, or some Karbis even weave on backstrap looms. The Khasis are a matrilineal ethnic group, where the family bloodline is passed on through the women. It is a complex society where the family clan is of great importance. Women are respected, though decision making still remains with the men. It is almost always women who weave, although the men will support them by helping with cultivating the silkworms, or making the looms. The photo above is of the Sujai family in Liarbang, showing 5 generations of women in the same family. All, except of course the baby, are weavers.

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