Sericulture is the growing of silkworms to produce silk. It has become an important cottage industry in many countries now. China and India are the two main producers, with over 70% of the world’s annual production of silk. There are four types of natural silk – Mulberry, Eri, Muga and Tasar. India, the second largest producer of silk, has the unique distinction of being the only country producing all four kinds of silk.
Natural silk is an insect fibre. It comes from the silkworm cocoon, spun around itself to protect its pupal stage inside. A single filament from a cocoon can be as long as 1,600 metres. Like other animal fibres, silk does not conduct heat and acts as an excellent insulator to keep our bodies warm in the cold and cool in the hot weather. Of the four varieties of natural silks, Mulberry is produced from domesticated silkworms. Tasar, Eri and Muga are from the wild and are known as Vanya silks.
The bulk of the commercial silk produced in the world comes from Mulberry. It comes from the silkworm, Bombyx mori L, which solely feeds on the leaves of Mulberry plants. These silkworms are completely domesticated and reared indoors.
Vanya or wild silks have their own fine attributes. These silks come from the North-Eastern and tribal zones of central, eastern India and sub-Himalayan regions. They are procured from the wild silkworms that feed on the leaves of different forest trees. Except for Eri, the cocoons are collected from the wild and the silk yarn is reeled. Eri silkworm feeds on castor leaves and is semi-domesticated. Each of the Vanya silks has its own unique beauty and individual charm. They are popularly used to create various designs for garments, lifestyle products and home furnishings. They form about 20% of the silk produced in India and have created their niche in the industry.
Mulberry silk is an agro-based cottage industry. To have a sericulture unit, first a Mulberry plantation needs to be established. Then the Mulberry leaves from the plantation are fed to the silkworms indoors in a rearing house in a certain controlled climate. The lifecycle of Mulberry silkworm of 45-55 days consists of the following stages — egg, larva, pupa and moth. At the end of the larval stage, the worm spins a protective cocoon consisting of a long single silk filament of ‘fibroin’ protein around itself. And is held together by ‘sericin’, another protein binding material. Inside the oval-like cocoon, the size of a cotton ball, the pupa forms and takes rest to become a silkworm moth. The moth cuts open the cocoon and comes out to live for 2-3 days to lay its eggs for continuation of its progeny. The lifecycle of the silkworm repeats again.
It is important to stop the cutting open of the cocoon by the moth. For, it cuts the single silk filament of 1,000-1,500 m length into pieces making it unfit for reeling. The cut pieces of the filament need to be spun, and the quality and the value of the silk is greatly reduced. So they stifle the pupa inside the cocoon, make the binding material dissolve in hot water and reel the silk filament into raw silk yarn inside the reeling units. Then the raw silk is processed to enhance its quality and made available for weaving.
Silk has lustre, drape and strength. There are three grades of silk. Each is a product of the three different stages of silk processing. The unwound filament makes the finest quality silk and is referred to as reeled silk. It is satiny smooth and pure white. Remaining silk from the reeling process becomes the raw material for carded or combed, spun silk yarn. The short fibres left behind after the carding or combing process are used to make noil yarn, a fine textured, rough silk.
The major Mulberry silk producing States are Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Jammu & Kashmir which together account for 92% of country’s Mulberry raw silk production. Cocoon production is more in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The reeling activity is more in Karnataka. Weaving is spread wider in many States.
Of the total world raw silk production of about 1,75,000 tonne, India produces about 35,000 tonnes. Around 60 lakh persons are engaged in various sericulture activities in the country. It is estimated that about 57% of the gross value of silk fabrics flows back to the cocoon growers with a share of income to different groups. In 2019-20, India exported Rs 1,800 crore worth of silk products while imports stood at Rs 1,150 crore. Environmentally and marketwise, India has big potential for increasing its silk Industry.
Sericulture is labour-intensive, providing gainful occupation to lakhs of people in rural and semi-urban areas in India. Of these, a sizable number of workers belong to the economically weaker sections. There is considerable involvement of women in it. An investment of Rs 15,000-20,000 (excluding the cost of land and rearing space) is sufficient for undertaking Mulberry cultivation and silkworm rearing in one acre of semi-irrigated land. Mulberry takes only six months to grow and Mulberry plants are perennial. Five crops of silk production can be done in one year under tropical conditions. By adopting stipulated practices, a farmer can get a net annual income of Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 per acre.
Telangana with a suitable climate akin to cocoon producing areas of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh can undertake sericulture in a big way to help its marginal and small farmers in the upland areas to earn more. There is a need to increase the cocoon market and reeling units substantially commensurate with the weaving centre infrastructure in existence in the State.
An acre of Mulberry garden and silkworm rearing can support a family of three without hiring labour. Features such as low gestation, high returns make sericulture ideal for weaker sections. It is an eco-friendly activity. There are vast tracts of forest and a big tribal population in the State for ‘Vanya’ sericulture. Tribals in the State are used to rearing/collecting Tasar silkworms.
Further promotion of it can offer more supplementary and gainful employment for them. So, sericulture can be a money-spinning micro enterprise for weaker sections in Telangana.
(The author is a freelance journalist)
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