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Fibre in Focus – Muga Silk

Hello and welcome to this episode of Fibre in Focus!  This time, I’ll be talking about Muga silk, one of my favourite fibres to work with, to touch and to look at.  It’s just divine.

An Exhalted History

Muga silk, or Assam silk, is one of the rarest silks in the world. It is made only in Assam in eastern India by cultivation of the Assam silk moth (Anthaerea Assamensis).  It’s one of three types of silk that come from the region, the others being Pat silk and Eri silk, which I will talk about in another post.

There is no record of when Muga silk production began in India.  Kautiliya, a philosopher, economist, teacher and royal advisor  who lived between the fourth and third centuries BCE, mentioned the production of a golden silk in ancient Assam in his writings. It’s thought that the cultivation of different types of silk moths was introduced by Tibeto-Burman migrants centuries before he wrote about it. It’s during the Ahom dynasty, which ruled Assam for 600 years from 1228 that Muga silk really took off as a luxury commodity.

During the Ahom rule, Muga silk was reserved for royalty and for high ranking government officers and aristocrats. The silk is the most gorgeous soft golden colour, and it seems to be more durable than other silks. Its natural lustre also increases with wash and wear, making it perfect for heirloom fabrics.  The Ahom rulers used the appeal and desirability of Muga silk to help trade with other regions, and also overseas.  Visiting dignitaries were often gifted clothing made from Muga silk.  Royal looms were operated by female weavers within the palace, and the fabric woven on them was destined only for the royal family. Many of these weavers were personally trained in the art by some of the Ahom queens.

Its fame spread. Demand for the fabric even from within the upper echelons of society was hard to meet and so production was outsourced into the region.  Almost every woman and many men in the region were proficient in spinning and hand weaving. A girl was considered unfit for marriage if she could not operate a loom.

And then came the British…

Unfortunately for the industry, it did not thrive as it could have done during the British Colonial rule. Although the British did see some value in silk exports, they were more focused on trying to open up the markets for new cottons and wool fabrics produced in burgeoning mills of the industrial revolution.  The increase in tea plantations to satisfy tea export demands also put a strain on the labour market, reducing the number of people available to work in silk production. Don’t you just love learning even more about reprehensible stuff your country used to do?

The British occupation notwithstanding, production of silk was, and remains extremely important to the economy of Assam. In 2007, Muga silk received geographical indication (GI) protection, which means that genuine Muga silk can only be produced in Assam. Thanks to the increased demand for natural fibres, this is great news for Muga silk farmers who have accumulated centuries of experience in Assam silk moth sericulture.

What’s it like to work with?

Gorgeous!  It’s similar to Tussah silk, which is unsurprising as it comes from the same moth family. It has a staple length of around six inches, and it’s unbelievably lustrous and soft.  It’s not super long and shiny like mulberry silk, which can be tricky to spin, but has a slightly ‘catchy’ texture. I find this helps with spinning, because it doesn’t slip about or slub easily. It’s easy to make a very even thread with Muga, and it works well spun fine or chunky.

My preference is to spin it super fine because it’s such a pleasure to do. Sometimes lace spinning can be, shall we say, frustrating, but I could spin Muga silk into lace all day long and not get tired of it. It would work beautifully as an embroidery threat or as a fine lace in a lacy, drapey shawl.  I like using it in my weaving as it adds little shots of gold into the fabric.

Whichever way you spin it, you do need to make sure it has a fairly high twist. It doesn’t hold together as well as wool would with a low twist, so I’d use a fast spindle or a high ratio on your wheel. That said, there are no hard and fast rules. Experimentation is a joy.

I must have some. Where can I buy it?

Aha!  Well, I import Muga silk sliver directly from India from a supplier I trust. I also like to use it in some of my batts, particularly Renaissance, because the gold goes so beautifully with this kind of dusty blue.

Next up in Fibre in Focus will be silk hankies.  Woohoo!

See you next time.  Pip pip!



Fibre in Focus – Seacell

I’ve been meaning to write blog posts about fibres I love to work with for absolutely ages, so I’m planning on this becoming a regular feature.  Hit me in the comments with any fibres you’re interested in that you’d like to know more about.

This week’s focus is Seacell, which is a pretty fabulous fibre in so many ways. It’s plant-based, sustainable, has low environmental impact, is soft, strong and absorbent (but not in a loo-paper type of way) and it’s completely biodegradable.

Production and Environmental Credentials

I could get into a very long-winded explanation of how Seacell is produced, but if you really want to know more about that in detail, you can go here. In short, Seacell fibre is a blend of wood-based cellulose and seaweed, specifically knotted wrack, which anyone in the UK will be familiar with from trips to the seaside. The wrack is harvested sustainably once every four years, which allows the wrack beds to regenerate. The drying and cutting process is natural and doesn’t involve any chemical additives.

The seaweed is then added as an active ingredient to wood cellulose and is processed using the Lyocell method, which works on a closed loop processing system. With Lyocell, this means that caustic soda, the usual solvent used to extract the cellulose, is replaced by a non-toxic organic compound called NMMO. The water in which the cellulose is processed can then be filtered and reused, reducing the amount of water used and eliminating toxic waste from the process. Even better, the wood used in the production of Lyocell is harvested from sustainable eucalyptus forests.

There are some health giving properties ascribed to Seacell that sound almost magical, and of which I am healthily sceptical, Manufacturers claim that because the health-giving minerals and vitamins found in seaweed transfer through our skin into our systems, we benefit from wearing Seacell in more ways than just our comfort. For more information on this controversy, go here and here. I’m remaining on the fence until more scientific evidence is available!

What’s it like to spin?

Some people compare Seacell to silk when it comes to spinning, but I don’t find them particularly similar. They are both beautifully lustrous, but Seacell is smooth and much more slippery, and its fibres are shorter than silk fibres tend to be – it has a staple length of around 3-5 inches. The fibres slide over each other easily and, like bamboo, it can be tricky to control the consistency of the yarn. I haven’t tried spinning it into single ply yarn but I have heard that Seacell singles can come apart quite easily thanks to its slippery qualities. That suggests to me that it needs a pretty high amount of twist, and probably does much better as a plied yarn as a result.

It does make an exceptionally smooth and drapey two ply yarn, which is lovely to handle and feels very soft to the touch. It lacks natural elasticity, so blending it with other fibres works really well, especially if you want to make something like socks with it.

Where can I get hold of this magical stuff?

Well, it’s funny you should ask that… One of the first ever blends I designed uses Seacell, and I love it. It’s a mix of alpaca, Seacell and silk, and it’s beautifully soft, fluffy and drapey while being warm, light and breathable. Alpaca takes dye in a soft and muted way, silk with brilliance and Seacell not at all, so it’s lovely to spin with in terms of depth and complexity of colour too.  You can find it here in some deliciously sumptuous colourways.

If you want to try Seacell in its unblended form, you can get it from World of Wool or Adelaide Walker.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little in depth look into one of my favourite fibres. Next up – Muga silk.

Zen Garden
Alpaca/Seacell/Silk – Zen Garden
Alpaca/Seacell/Silk – Orchid
Tequila Sunrise
Alpaca/Seacell/Silk – Tequila Sunrise