Silk was only introduced to Ethiopia about 12 years ago. The industry is still quite small. In fact, there are only about three large-scale farms producing Eri silk today. This is supplemented with some rural households which have started to produce silk to diversify and supplement their farming income.
Silk is an animal fibre produced by insects to build their cocoons and webs. Although many insects produce silk, only the filament produced by the mulberry silk moth, Bombyx mori, and a few others in the same genus, are used by the commercial silk industry.
At Sabahar, we use these and other “wild” silks such as Eri and Tussar to weave our scarves and fabrics. Eri silk, produced by the silk worm Philosamia Ricini, is one if the non-mulberry, or wild silks. It is the most common silk produced in Ethiopia. Traditionally this silk has come from the North-eastern states of Inda- Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur. A key characteristic of Eri silk, and a difference to the popular mulberry silk, is that Eri cocoons do not have a continuous filament and are, therefore, spun. This characteristic is very positive for Ethiopia as many women in Ethiopia know how to spin thread, as it is an ancient tradition in the country.
The Eri silk worm feeds on castor leaves (ricinus communis) which grows easily and abundantly in Ethiopia.
Eri silk worms are laid as tiny eggs. A few weeks after they are laid, they hatch into tiny worms. For three weeks they continue to grow into fat, two-inch worms that crawl everywhere and explore everything. Baby silk worms eat baby Castor leaves and grown silk worms eat grown Caster leaves.
Eri silk caterpillars can be three different colors or patterns. However all produce the same kind of white cocoons and, therefore, the same kind of silk. The Eri caterpillars are very hardy and can live in conditions found in rural Ethiopian households.
When the fully matured silk worms are crawling, they are looking for a place to cocoon. We put them in cocoon boxes and they immediately start to snuggle inside and begin cocooning. Each worm will turn around about 2,000 times to make their cocoons. After about two weeks, the Eri silk worm emerges from the cocoon as a butterfly. The butterflies mate and lay eggs and the cycle begins again.
Cotton is grown throughout Ethiopia below elevations of about 1,400 meters. Because most of the lowlands lack adequate rainfall, cotton cultivation depends largely on irrigation. As a result, most of the cotton in Ethiopia is grown on large state farms. Cotton is the fifth largest agricultural product grown in Ethiopia. Organic certification has not yet been introduced in Ethiopia for cotton. Sabahar buys most of the cotton we use in the market and from a couple of larger suppliers.
In order to meet the demand of our customers, Sabahar imports some silk from India and Uganda. Most of the imported silk is the traditional Mulberry silk. When mixed with Eri silk, the result are uniquely textured textiles. We also import Tusser silk and some Eri silk to augment the supply we find in Ethiopia.
Dyeing cloth in Ethiopia with all-natural, locally resourced materials has been going on for centuries. Unfortunately, through time, many of these skills have been forgotten. Sabahar is working to rekindle the dyeing tradition in Ethiopia through experimenting with a variety of different local materials for dyeing.
All of our silk dyes are 100% natural. We use a variety of flowers, leaves, bark, roots of plants as well as insects such as the cochineal and loc. Even the famous Ethiopian coffee provides a dye on silk that is warm and inviting.
One of the dyes we use is from the mescal flower- the national flower of Ethiopia- which only blooms in September. We also dye with cochineal- an insect living on cactus plants. Large quantities of cochineal are now being produced in Ethiopia, and give us a variety of shades of purples, pinks, reds, tangerines and grey.
Those dyes we cannot source locally are purchased from a reliable company that produces 100% natural dyes, www.maiwa.com
The following is a bit more information about the dyes we use at Sabahar.
Cutch is the heartwood of a small thorny tree called Acacia, and is used in natural dyeing to get shades of brown. Usually the heartwood chips are boiled in water until they turn into a thick mass and then the thick mass hardens into a solid brown mass. The fruit is used to dye the different shades of brown. The tree grows in tropical regions.
Ivy is a hardy, vigorous climber or creeper and is used to dye different shades of gray and greeny-yellow. It is the leaves and the berries that are used.
Dyeing with onion skin you get different shades of orange, rust and brown.
The flowers of this thistle-like plant have been used to dye different shades of yellow, pink and red. It is the flower itself that is used.
It is the heartwood of the Brazilwood tree which is used. The color produced are different shades of red, plum and pink.
Henna is a shrub that grows in very hot, dry regions. It is used to dye different shades of rust and brown, but also red.
Madder is used to dye different shades of red, beige and brown. The roots are used to dye the reds and the plant tops are used to dye the beiges and the browns.
African marigold is a bedding plant and is used to dye different shades of greeny-yellow, gold, orange, tan and olive-green. The plant tops and the flowers are used as dye.
Logwood is a big tree, which is used to dye dark shades of purple, blue and most importantly black, a color that is difficult to achieve. To dye with logwood the heartwood is used, either in form of wood chips or powder.
Pomegranate is an attractive, small tree with green leaves and scarlet flowers. It is used to dye ocher shades. To dye with pomegranate either the whole fruit or its skin is used.
The indigo plant occurs all over the world in various forms and is used to dye different shades of blue. The plant requires hot, sunny and humid climate and the part used for dying are the leaves. Indigo is the most successful dye plant ever known, because of its variety of shades and of its appearance in various forms.
The Meskel flower is a local kind of daisy and is used to dye different shades of yellow. The flower is the national flower of Ethiopia. To dye with meskel flowers only the flowers are used.