In you I see both beauty and grace
Each time I gaze upon your brilliant face
For you are Beauty draped in silk and lace
– John Allen
A gentle flurry of fabric, a graceful sway of soft material in bright jewel toned luxury– ah, for all that is silk!
We as the people of Bengal often take pride in what used to be our Muslins and Khadis and the range of cotton fabrics in the Bengal of yore. But how did the silk of Bengal slip away from the collective conscious of the people? Where did the stories of 'Ganges silk', known in lands as distant as Italy, at least as far back as the 13th century, disappear?
There have been many pivotal blows that time has struck to the silk production in Bangladesh. Yet there are dedicated people still, like those behind the venture styled 'Doyel Silk', who live and breathe silk, and are putting their utmost into keeping the art and industry alive here.
"Doyel started out as a humble venture in Rajshahi. I first brought Doyel to Dhaka to participate in 1999, during the first Dhaka International Trade Fair. I even stayed the nights inside the stall that year," says G M Alamgir, a driving force behind the heritage that is Doyel Silk, a brand well-known for pure silk to all true Dhakaiites.
Traditionally, the first three stages of production viz mulberry cultivation, silkworm rearing, and reeling of the raw silk yarn was done by specialised rural households of Bengal, as part of what was essentially a cottage industry.
The Bholahat and Charghat regions of Rajshahi were known for the rearing of the silkworm, and the farmers often known as 'boshnis.'
This yarn was then sold to specialised weavers in nearby villages or towns to make the textile. Bengal produced much more silk than was used locally, especially since it was a premium product and quite expensive.
In fact, the supply for such a luxurious item far outstripped local demand then, and led to vigorous exports of both cloth material as well as raw silk - a trade which brought the Europeans traders to mediaeval Bengal.
Alamgir spoke of being intimately involved with all types of silk artisans and sharing their lives, joys and pains over the past couple of decades. Many of these artisans have since become part of the gradual but en masse exodus from the industry. Yet, many faithful and passionate people linger on.
"The first design centre we started was just a room in our home. The very artisans we began the Design Lab with, are still with us," he says with pride, and a touch of melancholy.
Bengal was known for producing at least three variations of silk - mulberry silk, endi silk, and tassar silk but almost the entirety of the industry is on the verge of disappearing from Bangladesh.
The weight of the silk garment decides its level of fineness; the finer the thread and higher the count, the more opulent the silk. What we know as modern Muslin, is in fact pure silk too, in a different weave and with a stronger yarn, and is thus hardier than soft silk.
Most local silk producers are now fully dependent on imported yarn, as the demand far outstrips local production.
"More than 75 percent of the silk yarn now has to be imported," Almagir says, and it costs about Tk 6,000 per kg. This has made local silk much more expensive compared to its foreign competitors, as most other producers like India, China and others utilise homegrown silk, much less expensive locally.
Moreover, the inherent barriers to entry and operation to the industry that is silk are quite enormous, and are made severe from the lack of a supportive infrastructure and policies.
"The younger generation is not interested in the industry for all the related complications," Alamgir says. And it is not only the ecosystem, but the production process itself that is rigorous, and takes deep dedication to minute details, and also remains vulnerable to the vagaries of nature.
The production of each piece of art that is silk cloth takes a long route to fruition. After the yarn is bought, it is set up onto bobbins, and beams and warp machines. The fabric is then woven, and dyes in a time-consuming process, which needs the artisans' exacting skills, perfected over many a yarn.
As per the veritable expert behind the counter at Doyel, a single 47-inch wide soft silk sari can have a resounding 4850 unbroken yarns!
After the weave is complete, the dye is set, and an ample amount of sunlight is necessary for the colours to gain the sheen and vibrancy associated with silk, and shades can vary very easily depending on the amount and quality of sunlight received! This is why the tiny silk industry in Bangladesh is heavily reliant on good weather.
The complete lack of care from successive governments, in providing any support to the various types of silk workers, is a major factor behind the decline of the silk industry. Of course, the breakup of Bengal by the British first curbed the eastern side's access and participation in silk, but thereafter neither the Pakistan government nor the Bangladeshi one has done much to rectify that.
Despite the setbacks and roadblocks to nurturing his passion for silk, the people behind Doyel, and most importantly the man synonymous to Doyel for all patrons, works tirelessly and with pride, along with his very loyal team, on all the creations that are offered.
He beams with pride when describing what new things they have to offer, and sometimes falls into a melancholy reverie of what could have been.
Even today, whenever I visit the outlet in Dhanmondi, it invokes the same feeling of a colourful and plush wonderland - full of potential to make true a young girl's princess fantasies - that I first felt at the brand's outlet on one bright winter morning at the Dhaka International Trade Fair, a long time ago. And every visit, I file away some little piece of cloth as 'sample' to remember to use for whenever I desire to make anything that is supposed to feel like true beauty.
"I do not think any of my children will stay in this industry, one that I have given my all," Alamgir said.
Given the leaps and bounds growth of the local fashion scene, especially the wedding couture, it is a shame that the silk industry is dying for the lack of support and patrons. This year, may we be able to show our patriotism and love for the country in more concrete ways than just waving and wearing the flag on some days of the year - by supporting the local weaves of silk and cottons, and the industrious hands that make them beautiful.
Silk pillowcases are anti-ageing and reduce friction, and help avoid wrinkles, hair breakage, and bed head.
Silk pillowcases are helpful in avoiding allergies from things that may hide in traditional cotton pillowcases, letting you breathe easier through the night.
Silk is less absorbent than cotton, so it allows your face to stay moisturised for longer than with cotton or linen.
Silk helps to regulate temperature, and thus is comforting for sleep, especially during menopause induced hot flashes, and night sweats.
Silk curtains can add the touch of luxury while allowing for good flow of air.
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Model: Tabinda, Tania
Wardrobe: Doyel Silk
Make-up: Farzana Shakil's Makeover Salon
Styling: Sonia Yeasmin Isha