[The countryside around Mysore, a city of about 900,000 in the south-central state of Karnataka, was once a hub for silk farming. And though Chinese silk now dominates the local supply chain, companies and artisans from the greater Mysore area still weave saris from raw silk, just as they did more than a century ago.]
By Mike Ives
A yarn preparation area at the Karnataka Silk Industries Corporation in Mysore,
India. Credit Samyukta Lakshmi for The New York Times
MYSORE, India — In and around the pale yellow buildings of Mysore’s central market, the smells of jasmine, spices and incense mingle with the bright colors of dyes, candies, fruits and fabrics. The sensory overload can leave even seasoned travelers awe-struck, and torn about what to take home as a souvenir.
Along with sandalwood oil and Mysore pak — a yellow dessert made from ghee, sugar and chickpea flour — a popular choice is a silk version of the sari, the traditional Indian garment commonly made from cotton.
The countryside around Mysore, a city of about 900,000 in the south-central state of Karnataka, was once a hub for silk farming. And though Chinese silk now dominates the local supply chain, companies and artisans from the greater Mysore area still weave saris from raw silk, just as they did more than a century ago.
As a weaver, “your name is secondary,” said K. M. Minhaj, a silk merchant at the Sukris Silk Emporium in downtown Mysore, which overlooks a busy traffic circle and Mysore’s 1912 royal palace. “Your silk is primary.”
Mysore’s silk industry was likely born when one of its 18th-century rulers, Tipu Sultan, imported silkworms from Bengal and from Muscat, the capital of Oman, possibly after receiving silk clothing from a Chinese diplomat, according to an account by Simon Charsley, an honorary senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow.
The silkworm campaign was part of a broader economic development program by Tipu Sultan that also encouraged local production of sandalwood, tamarind and beetle nut, according to the account. A 1786 letter from the palace ordered a palace worker to determine where the silkworms could live comfortably in Mysore, “and what means are to be pursued for multiplying them.”
Karnataka now accounts for nearly 35 percent of India’s raw silk output, more than any other state, government data from 2013 show.
Since the early 20th century, the center of Mysore’s silk industry has been a silk-weaving factory near the royal palace. It was established in 1912 to manufacture silk clothing for a local maharaja’s family and their army, and transferred to government control after India gained independence from Britain in 1947.
In 1980, ownership of the factory was transferred to the state-owned Karnataka Silk Industries Corporation, which modernized and expanded the factory with financial support from the World Bank.
The factory is open to the public but, because there is no official tour, visitors wander through the production line without much guidance, stopping to ask assembly-line workers for directions.
The production process begins when bushy, raw silk threads are washed and loaded onto steering-wheel-size looms. The thread is then refined further until it is ready for warping and wefting on pale-green Japanese machines that spool hundreds of threads together in a room with peeling yellow paint and a high ceiling.
In other rooms, dozens of automated looms lace gold thread into silk fabrics. Then they are plunged into degumming baths — where a chemical process removes natural gum that makes the fabrics brittle — and sent through machines that drench them in vivid red, purple and orange dyes.
How old are the machines, and who made them, a visitor asked on a recent afternoon at the factory.
“1982!” a worker shouted, raising his voice above the whirring, spinning and clanking.
“Suzuki!” he added.
Mysore silk merchants also sell saris made by other silk brands. One is Chamundi Silks, which specializes in simple, lightweight saris for everyday wear. Its parent company, Chamundi Textiles, has weaving and dyeing facilities in Bangalore and Mysore, and sells silk saris for $67 to $300, compared with $104 to $1,649 at Karnataka Silk Industries’ factory showroom.
“We make silk in such a way that is very soft, very lightweight, skin-friendly, body-hugging, rather comfortable” and washable, said S. Adijagannathan, a Chamundi Silks sales manager, during an interview in Mysore.
Yet even if machine-made silk saris are typically softer and thinner than homespun ones, they often lack the same level of embroidery, coloring and attention to detail that Indian consumers prize, said Delphine Marie-Vivien, a researcher at Cirad, a French government agency that specializes in agricultural research.
An industrial process “doesn’t make it better quality,” said Ms. Marie-Vivien, who studied Mysore’s silk sector from 2005 to 2008 as a visiting researcher at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka State. “It just makes it a different kind of silk.”
The homespun sari industry is still alive in Karnataka. As of 2010, the state had 134,338 weavers and 40,486 handlooms, mostly in rural areas, according to a government census. India’s Central Silk Board also reports that Karnataka is home to six “silk centers” of unique design or weaving styles, more than any other Indian state.
One such center is Kollegal, a silk-weaving town about 40 miles from Mysore. Mr. Minhaj, the manager of the Sukris Silk Emporium, said he bought saris from about 15 Kollegal weavers on an as-needed basis.
Production occurs on an unpredictable schedule in many silk-weaving villages, Mr. Minhaj said, adding that he never placed orders in advance.
“But if you’re a weaver, you come to my counter and your sari is nice,” he added, “I’ll use it.”