Anannya Sharma discusses the heritage of silk workmanship in Assam

Tejashee Kashyap

India is a country where cultural identity is a point of pride, idiosyncratic to each region. The north-east in particular is home to centuries-old tribes, with beautiful customs and traditions. Often, it is tied to styling and dress patterns, which are uniquely influenced by the lives and history of the people who live there.  

Yarn Glory is a local company which builds on this, making the old school seem modern and giving Assamese discourse a platform outside of state lines. There are many, relatively unknown varieties of textiles, unique to the area, which are finding their place in modern attire and everyday ensembles. Weaving is an integral part of local life, with Assam being one of the best known sources beyond our borders as well.

Sericulture, or silk farming, has been practiced in Assam since time immemorial. It would be silly to talk about the weaving practice of the state without mentioning the population’s expertise with silk. Anannya Sharma, who is Yarn Glory's founder and designer, works with local silk makers to create hand-woven products. The art of sericulture and the craft of weaving has grown to such sophistication here, that apart from achieving global fame, the state has also received the Geographical Indication tag for Muga silk, which is a recognition of its specific qualities.

Sharma credits her upbringing with her interest in the craft, “As a child, I grew up in upper Assam amidst nature in its various manifestations. In the interior parts of Jorhat and Mothiasiga, I spent days watching my grandmother weave. I was always deeply fascinated by the process of spinning silk from a cocoon.” Weaving is often described as a meditative process, and it has been the same for Sharma as well. “I was always taken aback by the beauty of nature. The changing colors and myriad hues of the sky or the trees have always interested me.”

There are three main varieties of silk - Muga, Pat and Eri silk. The most well-known of these is Muga Silk, a golden variety which is only found in specific climates. Being one of nature's gifts to the region, it more complex to handle and is thus, more expensive.

Soothing, earthy shades are the foundation for Sharma's ethno-cultural design philosophy. “My journey into textile designing began in the eighties when I decided to go to Bombay to pursue a course in this subject. Textile designing is an intricate art. To learn how to manipulate fabrics and play with textures broadens the scope what can be done. To me, fabrics are an interplay of creativity and practicality,” says the designer. She works with designs and motifs to creative a range of handspun specials from homeware like table runners and cushion covers to wardrobe staples like stoles. “Embarking on a career in designing is an actualization of my interest in colors and patterns. While fabricating a collection, nature and its varied seasons remains the core inspiration from which our designs emerge. Through a process of careful derivation of our dyes, our weavers go on to develop yardages of fabric that are then used for product evolution.” Her designs are often influenced by the local tribal traditions, especially those of the Rabha, Garo, Karbi and Mising. Sharma works to modernize the traditional motif alive by making certain changes that will increase the appeal among a wider group of people.

The traditional silk industry is said to have taken root between 13th to early 19th century. Since then, there has been a decline in the industry due to the growing influence of machine-woven synthetic imitation fabrics. But that’s where entrepreneurs like Sharma come in. Working to preserve the handloom heritage of the community, her business model involves empowering the indigenous women weavers and making them financially independent. She helps them by providing improved methods of weaving and helping them create a larger variety of crafts. “I started working with women weavers in villages of the northeastern region about 18 years ago,” she says. “I observed that our rich heritage of handloom weaving was under threat. The lack of diversity in product range and stereotypical designs and color schemes was limiting the market reach. Most of the women weavers remained in a state of financial hardship, which quite naturally, offered a little incentive to the younger generation to adopt trade as a tool for economic improvement. The underlying goal of my business has always been about helping women reach financial independence.”

While silk remains one of the most popular fabrics across the world, the idea that it can be both sustainable and luxurious raises eyebrows. “My emphasis is on Eri or Ahimsa silk which is a more environment-friendly choice. The yarn is drawn without killing the silkworm and it is dyed in natural extracts derived from different herbs, fruits, flowers, the bark of trees and vegetables.” She believes the silks she works with are a step in the right direction, if we are to make the fashion industry more sustainable while still making sure customers get value for money. Conscious alternatives to fast fashion are on the rise, and when modern innovations can be paired with traditional arts, brands can find a way forward that doesn’t need to trade sustainability for commercial viability. “Having my own brand has always been a pleasure. Sometimes, it can be a struggle and but no regrets, whatsoever. I felt it was a much-needed effort on my part to let the world know about our talented and highly skilled weavers," says Sharma. "Being able to do this is satisfaction in itself.”

The designer has also worked with the government on various projects which included going to rural areas, training the local weavers in skill development and product diversification and provide them with market linkage. Sharma is resolute in her approach, “Fair trade and a fair wage can be the only motto for healthy growth and the economic well-being of the weavers. Most of my sales are local to Assam but I also sell it to other cities and sometimes, abroad as well.”

Images by Yarn Glory.
Words by Tejashee Kashyap. Edited for clarity.

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