Against all Odds: Silk continues to rule as ‘Queen’ of Textile

NeW Bureau

The material ‘Silk’ always spells luxury, elegance, class and comfort. It is known as the ‘Queen’ of all textile fibers because of its luster and gloss. Silk is a luxurious item and a sign of prestige which is mostly used by affluent people of the society.

Sericulture is both an art and science of raising silkworms for silk production. The process or raising silkworms and unwinding their cocoons are called sericulture. There are many indigenous varieties of wild silk moths found in a number of different countries. Sericulture and silk production Industry is highly labor intensive and an agro based rural Industry. Producing silk is a lengthy process and demands constant close attention. Sericulture is an income – generating industry that plays a significant role for the enhancement of the overall demand of the silk market and in transferring wealth from richer to the poorer. It generates self employment for the rural unemployed population, gives quick returns on low investment and is a source for raw material, exports and foreign exchange earnings. It is practiced in a wide range of agro-climatic regions like forests, hilly areas and plains. In fact, the recent technological advancements have made it possible to practice it on an intensive scale, mainly due to increased profits obtained from it as compared to most of the crops and enterprises.

Silk industry can be classified into two parts. First part is Sericulture, which involves four important operations viz., Mulberry cultivation, Silkworm egg production, Silkworm rearing and disposal of cocoons. The second part includes reeling, twisting, dyeing, weaving and printing. All these processes are industrial in nature. The production process of silk involves a large chain of interrelated actions and professions that provide source of livelihood and employment to many segments of people, including, silkworm seed producers, farmers-cum-rearers, reelers, twisters, weavers, spinners, traders and others auxiliary traders. The above segments play a prominent role in the development of silk industry. However the prosperity of silk industry depends upon the prosperity of Sericulture. Production of silk fabrics directly depends upon the quality and quantity of reeling cocoons.

Silk is one of the most beautiful and precious fibers given to us by nature but has been very much overshadowed over the past few decades by other natural fibers and particularly by synthetics.

 The natural fibers- cotton, wool and silk dominated the world textile until middle of 20th century. The global textile scenario underwent spectacular changes with advent of manmade fibers during middle of 20th century.  The beginning of cellulose and synthetics fibers and their sudden spurt changed the textile fiber consumption pattern overnight. Man-made fibers have revolu­tionised the textile industry because they are in great demand due to their special qualities like strength, durability, dye ability and workability. Over and above, they are resistant to shrinkage. The manmade fiber weaving units started between 1925 and 1935 when the cost of pure silk fabrics became very expensive. Nylon hosiery and socks hit the market and gradually nylon became a household word the world over.

The post-war period brought out a host of several other true synthetic fibers, which can broadly be put under three groups- polyester, acrylic and poly vinyl. Modern research and development work on manmade fibers is the key to rising success and growing versatility of manmade. Worldwide silk production totals about a hundred thousand tonnes.  The other natural fibers (cotton, wool) and synthetic fibers (nylon etc) total in the tens of millions of tonnes.  World silk production has approximately doubled during the last 30 years in spite of man-made fibers replacing silk for some uses. The driving factors for the growth of the silk market are the low capital-intensive industry, growth of cosmetic industry, increase in demand of silk, technological advancement in sericulture. Silk market requires less investment as it does not need complicated machines and equipment for its production.

Though natural fibers have lost their share in global textile fiber consumption, these fibers have successfully withstood severe competition from manmade and by the beginning of 21st century, their production and consumption are slowly rising. Silk is gaining increasing importance day by day because of its exclusive qualities, which rarely found in any other fibers. Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. Silk is the only natural filament that man does not have to spin before it can be used for textile fabrics.

Silk enters the 21st century as string, smooth, much sought after environment friendly, healthy textile fiber. The emerging trend that completely changed the production pattern of silk industry is that despite Japan and Korea gradually abandoned sericulture due to high labour cost, pressure from high-tech industries and severe competition from manmade, China, India, Thailand, North Korea, Brazil and Vietnam rose substantially to meet the global demand. The important development of silk is availability of medium priced silk garments, crease-resistant silk apparels, which are in big demand. Until 1980s silk was worn only for special occasions, but silk is no more a luxury or ceremonial dress, it is now a casual wear and even sportswear.

Importance of silk has increased, partly due to the current preference for natural products among environment conscious consumers and the resultant increase in demand for natural fibers have helped the global silk consumption. The demand for both high priced and medium priced silk garments continue to rise due to growing concern for protecting environment, particularly among industrial countries which are even prohibiting use of certain chemicals, dyes and prefer natural to chemical fibers. Silk will never become a mass produced fiber, but it will continue to occupy its special position as a fiber for exceptionally high quality garment. In recent years microfibers with polyester blend have entered the commercial fibers with ‘silk look’, but despite all efforts to endow silk like look and silk touch, manmade have yet to go a long way to meet  the environment friendly and healthy characteristics of natural fibers.

The global silk market is classified on the basis of type and application. The type is sub segmented into spider silk, mulberry silk, eri silk and tussar silk. The mulberry silk segment is expected to lead the silk market worldwide due to its flexibility, high strength and durability. Mulberry silk is primarily used in the manufacturing of textile such as scarves, gowns, blouses, apparel, wedding dresses, as well as in interiors such as draperies, pillows and wall hangings. If fashion is a fine art, then silk is its biggest canvas, and if silk is the canvas, then all its weavers, dyers, designers, embroiderers are the greatest artists.

The Asian countries produce about ninety percent of the total silk in the World. Silk is produced mainly in thirty countries of the World of which fourteen are situated in the Asian region.  Out of these fourteen countries, significant contributors are China, India, Japan, Korea, and Thailand. The major shift in finished silk product was that once it was dominated by Europe but now by China, India, Korea, and Thailand. They are also the major suppliers of finished silk products to Europe and U.S.A.  The important development in Asian Silk trade is that the Japan is losing its position as producer but has still maintained its rank as world’s largest consumer. China has emerged as the world’s biggest producer and exporter of raw silk, silk fabric and garments. In fact, several leading fashion designers in Europe and U. S. have their captive production of exclusive designer’s for clothing in China and India.

Asia Pacific is the dominating and fastest growing region during forecast period 2016 to 2023. The driving factor which is responsible for the growth of the silk market in Asia Pacific is technological advancement in the sericulture and easy availability of raw silk in Asian counties such as China, India etc. The consumption of silk is expected to rise despite its high prices, but the issue is whether the silk production will keep pace with the shooting demand.  As a consequence the future of silk through the 21st century seems quite bright. Nevertheless the main challenge for the silk industry is how to stop gradual decline in silk production and raise both productivity and production to meet the growing consumption of this environment friendly silk fibers.

Silk is highly valued because it possesses many excellent properties. Silk has set the standard in luxury fabrics for its elegant textile qualities, wear comfort and aesthetic look for several millennia and continues to rule as ‘Queen’ of textiles fibers.

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