Types of Silk Fabrics and Yarns

(Kyunkihar silk ki ek kahani hai!)

Silk is a magnificent fabric certainly. The favourite of Gods, the symbol of royalty and love of saree connoisseurs- silk is as varied as the types of handloom available in India. The thread of silk is so delicate and fine that even experts and textile engineers, who identify the fabrics for a living, can’t do it without the help of a magnifying glass. So, it is quite okay to feel overwhelmed for us commoners when buying silk sarees online.

As per an anecdote, silk was first discovered by a Chinese empress who found the silkworm accidentally. Since then we have come a long way and so does the silk, from being an exclusive for a rich man’s robes to six-yarders. We have discovered that the spiders produce the finest of silk, yes, much better than the one thatBombyx mori silkworms provide. If this New Yorker post is to be believed, the future of the textile industry is going to be spider-silk. However, until then, we can try and figure out the types of silk threads and fabrics available in India!

And why do you need to understand the nuances of different silk fabrics and learn the differences before buying a silk saree online, is because not all silk threads are equal. How a silk yarn is produced and processed can make or break the look of a fabric. Besides, it is also the first and foremost factor that decides the price tag of the drape you are eyeing.

The silk procured from silkworms in India is mainly classified into these broad segments:

Types On the basis of silk moths or base material

Wild Silk Type

Instead of mulberry leaves, the wild silkworms or moths eat oak leaves and produce wild silk. It is heavier and has an uneven, rough texture to it.Commercially, this silk is also known as tussar silk. It is naturally available in dark brown or grey colour and dyed later for the desired shade. There are four types of tussar silkworm varieties in India namely Indian tusser silkworm (AntheraeamylitteDury), Japanese tussar silkworm (AntheraeayamamaiQuerin) and Chinese tusser silkworm (Antheraeapernyi Guerin). The types of silk produced by these silkworms are as different as chalk and cheese.

There are more than 500 species of wild silkworms in India however, only a few are commercially viable to produce silk. Unlike the mulberry silk, which is produced as one long thread, the wild silk is produced in the batches, by cutting the threads at irregular intervals.

Wild silk is also difficult to dye and bleach. However, several modern processes such as demineralization have emerged that remove the mineral reinforcement in the cocoon and can produce similar sheen as the mulberry one.

The estimated silk production of tussar silk is 130 tonnes on a yearly basis.

Mulberry Silk Type

Bombyx mori silkworms are domesticated silkworms. They feed on mulberry leaves only and the silk produced by them is the finest of them all. The silk has an extraordinaire sheen and has the signature ‘silky’ texture, silk is known for. It is also the most common of silk fabric and currently dominates the world silk market with more than 80 per cent share.  It is the highest quality of silk available in the market for purchase.  The history of mulberry silk can be traced back to Indus Valley Civilisation, where it was used to craft costumes of the royal family. The original white colour of the mulberry silk is due to the feeding of the host white mulberry plant. 

India is the second-largest manufacturer of mulberry silk after China. The major mulberry silk producing states in India are West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir and Tamil Nadu.

The silkworms are bred indoors and remain on the strict diet of white mulberry trees.

Eri Silk Type

Eri silk is produced by the silkworm species called Philosamiaricini. The silkworms are found in Northeast India and in some parts of Japan and China. The term, ‘Eri’ comes from the Assamese word, ‘Era,’ which means castor or arandi in Indian language, referring to their feeding on castor oil plant leaves.  Besides Bombyx Mori, this is the only silkworm species that is completely domesticated.

In China, the Eri silkworms feed on a different host plant called Borkesseu, Ailanthus excelsa and the silk thus produced is called Ailanthus silk.

The texture of this silk is woolly and the original colour of the silk is white. When the eri silk is processed without killing the silkworms, it is called the silk of peace, referring to its white colour. In India, it is commercially sold as ‘Ahimsa Silk’ as the silk fabrics are processed when the moths have left the cocoon.

Muga Silk Type

Muga silk is produced only in Assam and nowhere else. This makes this silk yarn one of the most coveted and rarest silks in the world. The word, ‘Muga’ means ‘golden yellow’ in Assamese, referring to its original colour. The origin of the Muga silk can be traced back to the times of Ahom rulers. The rulers patronized this silk and preferred to wear clothes made from muga silk fibres only. It is one of the most expensive too! The silkworm, Antheraeaassamensis is semi-cultivated. It is believed that the silkworm can’t even tolerate the slightest of pollution level and is extremely sensitive to climate changes.

Muga silk is known for its resilience.  Besides being organic and natural, it is known for its longevity and often is a part of an heirloom. The lustre of the silk increases with the age and the silk gets finer, like old wine. The muga silk is preferred in its natural yellow colour but it is compatible with dyes and embroidery threads. Muga silk can be ironed damp for a smooth feel or can be worn with wrinkles and creases with equal panache.

The exquisiteness of muga silk can be guessed from the fact that more than 1,000 cocoons are needed to produce 125 grams of silk fibre. For one six-yard muga silk saree, more than 1,000 grams of silk is needed. When you order one muga silk saree, it takes at least two months to cultivate the silkworms and then, two weeks to complete the weaving of the saree. In Assam, the Garo community cultivates the silk and provides the fabric to the weavers.

Apart from these silk fibres mentioned above, these are a few exotic and rare silk fibres available all across the globe:a

Spider Silk Type

The spider silk is said to be the next big thing in fashion. It is said to be five times stronger than steel and even more tensile than an elastic band.  It is also speculated that the spider silk as strong as the toughest man-made polymer, Kevlar. The spider silk is essentially a protein fibre that the spiders use to spin a web, catch prey, and suspend themselves in air, to float through or even glide away from predators.

It is very expensive and as per an estimate, it can come with a price tag of $40,000 per kilogram.

However, it is not commercially viable yet as unlike silkworms, it difficult to farm spiders. Besides, every single spider produces a different type of silk.

Sea Silk Type

Sea silk is derived from a clam. It is one of the much rarer and most expensive silk fibres that come from now a protected species. There is only one woman, Chiara Vigo, who dives into the sea, harvests it and spins it.  This sea silk is also known as byssus, which is also mentioned on the Rosetta stone. It is believed that God told Moses to lay this sea silk on the first altar. It is considered to be the finest fabric in Egypt, Rome and Greece.  The sea silk fibre is treated with spices and juice initially. After the treatment, the silk just shines and glistens in the sunlight.

The sea silk fibre comes from the solidified saliva of Pinna Nobilis and is considered sacred. It is believed to bring good luck, prosperity, fertility and blessings of God. It is not for sale commercially and Vigo never makes a penny for it. She does it for the kids, newlywed couples and people who are outcast and in dire need of a miracle from God.

People who tried to commercialise the sea silk failed miserably.

Types of Silk On the basis of silk yarn

Silk Blends

Silk blends are derived from mixing silk with other fibres.  The silk blends are the best of both worlds! They have the lustre, sheen and wonderfully smooth texture of silk minus the reactive properties and maintenance issues of silk. Some of the much-liked silk blends are:

  • Cotton Silk

A blend of cotton and silk, cotton silk is a synergy of positive characteristics of these two fibres. It is lightweight, comfortable and silky. A fabric that comes with the versatility of silk and comfort of cotton, a piece of fabric that has the matte side of cotton and shine of silk! The silk-cotton blend can be washed manually at home.

  • Silk Wool

Silk wool is a blend of wool and silk fibre. This blend is lightweight, has better moisture absorption and is wrinkle resistant minus the scratchiness of pure wool.  The blend is used for bridal lingerie, home décor and high-end sportswear. This blend is highly durable and gives a crisp fit. The bodice of silk wool is very popular among celebrities and brides.

  • Art Silk

Art silk or artificial silk a synthetic fibre that resembles silk for its sheen but is basically rayon as a functional alternative to silk. However, it is not as durable or elegant as silk. It is also called bamboo silk or viscose.  The imitation silk can be made with mercerized cotton, polyester or rayon. The famous Banglori silk is actually polyester that has silk-like sheen but actually is a cheap and fake version of silk.

Difference between genuine silk and artificial silk

The sheen itself bears testimony to the authenticity of silk. Besides, the pure silk sarees come with Silk Mark India Certification by the Government of India. You can rub a handful of it together to determine the fabric makeup of the drape and assess the smoothness of the silk.

Types of Silk On the basis of Geographical Indication

A geographical indication is a sign for a product originated from a specific area or have a reputation of originating from the said place. A GI tag prevents third-parties from using the product name without conforming to the technical standards or code of practice.

Banarasi silk Type

Banarasi silk is made from pure mulberry silk in the holy city of Kashi. Considered to be one of the finest drapes in India and popular for their exquisite work of gold brocade and embroidery, these sarees have mogul inspired designs such as kalga, bel, flowers and peacocks intricately carved along the body of the sarees.  Banarasi saree are available dime a dozen, both online and offline, at a different price point.

A Banarasi saree is an heirloom. It takes more than 15 days to weave a traditional six-yarder.  A Banarasi saree with a GI tag and Silk Mark India is the perfect way to get the best value for your money and ensure that you invest in an authentic handloom.

Assam silk

Muga silk is one of the rarest types of silk that is available only in Assam.

Bhagalpuri Silk

Bhagalpuri or tussar silk sarees are made in Bhagalpur city, which is also famous as the silk city of India. The weaves of tussar silk saree are more than a 100-year-old. The tussar silk sarees are weaved by the community of more than 30,000 weavers in Bhagalpur city working on 25,000 handlooms.  The popularity of Bhagalpuri silk sarees can be guessed from the turnover of the city’s handloom industry, which is a whopping 100 crores, out of 80 per cent comes from export.

Kanchipuram Silk

Crafted in the Kanchipuram village in Tamil Nadu, Kanchipuram or Kanjivaram sarees are an integral part of a bridal trousseau. It is the must-have sarees in weddings and festive occasions in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. More than 5,000 families are involved in the weaving of these silk sarees. It is believed that these Kanchi weavers are the descendant of the master weaver of Gods, Sage Markanda. The sarees have contrast zari borders, motifs of South Indian temples, paintings of Raja Ravi Verma, tales of Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Chanderi Silk Type

Chanderi silk sarees are crafted out of silk cotton, Chanderi cotton or pure silk fabrics. Marked with traditional coin, floral art, abstract geometric pattern and peacocks in golden zari, these sarees have a smooth texture, crispy fall and a rich feel. These are made in Chanderi village, Madhya Pradesh. It is believed that Shishupal, Lord Krishna’s cousin introduced the fabric. The weave has enjoyed royal patronage for its elegant look and regal feel. The weave of the sarees is also called ‘woven air’ for being lightweight and glossy texture.           

Chinese Silk

China is the largest silk producer in the world. Unfortunately, it is also notorious for flooding the Indian market with cheap polyester material that resembles silk and is often sold at a higher price to dupe unsuspecting customers. However, when not sold as handloom, this art silk variant is used by many commercial brands for making tops, shirts and western wear.

Thai Silk

Produced from the cocoons of Thai silkworms, Thai silk is available in the market in two different varieties of Eri silk and mulberry silk. Besides, the GI tag, the Thai Agriculture Ministry marks its silk with different peacock emblems to protect the customers from imitation and help them to buy the authentic silk.

  • Gold Peacock: It is a Royal Thai silk, a traditional handloom product.
  • Silver Peacock: Hand-made and made of specific silkworms
  • Blue Peacock: A pure silk product, however, allows chemical dyes and follows no particular production standards
  • Green Peacock:  A silk-blend fabric

Types of Silk On the basis of fabric weaves

The silk yarns are weaved differently, in a different pattern of S or Z, in a warp or weft combination, with one thread or multiple.

Silk Satin or Carmeuse

This silk fabric is medium-weight and has a satin-like feel. The backside of the fabric is dull. It is supple and smooth. It is used extensively in dressmaking and upholstery. It is the favourite of the designers for its smooth and shiny texture. It is a top choice for bridal dresses and lingerie despite it being slippery while stitching.  If you aren’t a fan of bright and shiny fabric that clings to your body as well, you would like to skip it altogether and stick to raw or tussar silk.

Chiffon Silk or Crepe Chiffon

Crepe chiffon is the soft and sheer fabric that has a matte feel. It falls a little loose on the body and is perfect to make those flowy gowns and evening dresses that you mostly see on celebrities. It comes in every colour and print imaginable. The fabric is sheer and needs a lining if you don’t want it to be transparent.

It is perhaps one of the most sensual varieties in silk that is delicate and quite feminine. A lot of contemporary wear and sarees online are made of chiffon. The chiffon sarees are lightweight and a Bollywood favourite.

Silk Shantung

Silk shantung is similar to dupion silk and is a bit heavyweight. The fabric is a bit coarse and slightly irregular in feel. It doesn’t get creased easily and is airy in feel. In India, a varied version of it is known as tussar silk.

 Silk Organza

This crispy fabric is durable and has a loose weave. While the texture of the fabric is smooth, it is fluffier, heavier and stiffer in nature. The fabric is transparent and gets creased easily. This fabric is perfect for layered and ruffled sarees and designer party wear sarees.

Silk Brocade

The silk fabric is a blend and has a jacquard pattern woven on a satin base.

Georgette

This sheer and strong silk fabric made from silk and looks like chiffon except for its grainy texture. The georgette is also thicker in nature and gives a lean silhouette. It has become the preferred choice of many designers for its lightweight and sweat-absorbent properties. However, the fabric puckers easily and needs to be handled with care.

Silk Tissue

It is a type of silk organza but has metallic yarn woven on to the silk yarn, giving it a resplendent look. The fabric has a crispy yet a fluffier look, making it perfect for a voluminous lehenga, evening gown and ready-to-wear sarees.

Spun Silk

Spun silk is made of waste silk fabric and has short fibres.  It is made of cocoons that are damaged or broke off during the processing of pure silk. It is more heat-resistant than wool but not as durable or stronger.

Matka Silk

Made of waste mulberry silk, matka silk is a rough handloom silk fabric. The rough texture and medium-weight of matka silk make it easier to stitch. It is economical and a functional alternative to pure silk.

Types of SIlk On the basis of yarns used

Raw Silk

Raw silk is called ‘paat’, ‘resham’ or ‘pattu’ in Eastern India. It is the most natural form of silk that can be directly woven into a variety of fabrics. India is the second-largest manufacturer of raw silk after China. Pochampally and Bhagalpur are the major exporters of raw silk fibre. The raw silk has an uneven texture yet is as magnificent as pure silk.  Raw silk, however, needs to be stitched a bit lose as it is prone to linting when running close to the body.

Dupion Silk Type

Dupion silk is a crisp and plain weave. The fabric is weaved using warp and weft with different threads. The fabric looks resplendent and has an iridescent or two-tone effect. For instance, if you look at a pink dupion fabric, it will look purple and red from different angles. This silk is a bit cheaper than pure or raw silk. The fabric is used extensively in crafting rich upholstery and saree blouses for its shimmery effect.  The fabric is strong but not as durable as the pure silk. It doesn’t wrinkle and has black specks of fabric in the weaving.  It is easier to sew and you can find printed, embroidered and plain dupion silk in the market. The surface of the fabric may pill and the loose end of the fabric frill easily.

Varanasi is the major manufacturer of the dupion silk.

Taffeta Silk

This silk is satin-like smooth and has a crisp feel. Its iridescence is more pronounced and this is why it is used to craft wedding lehengas, evening gowns and anarkali suits with an opulent fall.  The yarn-dyed taffeta is called paper silk and is crispier in feel.

Tussar Silk

It is a type of wild silk that has a natural gold finish.  Many varieties of tussar silk are cultivated in China, Japan, India and Sri Lanka.

Art Silk

Also called artificial silk, art silk is a synthetic fibre and is cheaper to produce. The art silk could be a blend of mercerized cotton, rayon or polyester with silk.