For most of us, the story of an object starts at the store shelf and ends in our homes, from the point-of-purchase to the personal space: the bookshelf, the kitchen counter, the living room. This story, while the one that we are most familiar with, only captures a fraction of the lifespan of any one thing. Before an object can make its way into our homes, before a shopkeeper can place it in a store display, it can cross hundreds of miles and pass through dozens of hands. Today, we’re sharing one such journey—that of a silk west elm pillow.
west elm’s Sari Silk and Silk Hand-Loomed pillows are produced by Eco Tasar, a social enterprise and silk workshop based in India. Founded by entrepreneur Khitish Pandya while he worked with the Indian non-profit group Pradan, Eco Tasar’s goal is to provide employment to the women of Bihar and Jharkhand, two of the poorest states in India. In 2008, the west elm design team was introduced to Eco Tasar and the two began producing silk pillows, beginning Eco Tasar’s work in international markets.
The journey of one of these pillows begins in rural Bihar and Jharkhand, where silkworm cocoons are reared and spun into silk.
Cocoons are harvested twice a year. The above image depicts an egg facility where moths emerge and mate. Females are placed in plastic boxes to lay eggs and the healthy batches are separated and then sold to farmers to grow cocoons for spinning.
From the eggs purchased from the parent farm, farmers hatch and raise silk worms on local plots and then sell them to buyers like Eco Tasar. Pods are available in December and January; the butterflies emerge July and August. Eco Tasar purchases the cocoons and then distributes them to spinning villages, collecting and purchasing spun yarn at the same time that they deliver new cocoons.
As we traced the journey of our silk pillows, we visited the spinning village of Bavhni in the Dumka district, Jharkhand, about 80 km from Bhagalpur. There are 27 women yarnmakers in the village.
One of the yarnmakers we spoke to was Sita Devi. She has been spinning yarn since 2006. She has three children—a 16-year-old boy, a nine-year-old and 12-year-old girl. She pays for their school fees, uniform fees, and books with the money that she has from this job.
Unbroken cocoons can be used to create one continuous thin silk thread through the reeling process. This process must be done in a centralized location, because cocoons have to be pressure-cooked with hydrogen peroxide, which lightens them and allows for more consistent coloring and a finer silk thread. This is the kind of silk used in west elm’s Sari Silk Pillows.
Damaged cocoons, or those from which the moth has emerged, can be spun into a coarser silk thread. Women can boil the cocoons at home and use foot pedal machines to spin the silk into thread. This thicker thread, with its darker color, takes dyes a little less evenly and has a more nubbly texture in finished product. This is the kind of silk used in west elm’s Silk Hand-Loomed Pillows.
Once the silk has been spun into thread, Eco Tasar staff travel through the villages, dropping off new pods to spin and reel and purchasing yarn from the spinners. The thread is then transported to weaving villages just outside Bhagalpur.
Multiple strands of silk thread are twisted together and then wound onto bobbins to create stronger silk yarn for weaving.
The spun yarn is then taken to a facility in Bhagalpur to be bleached and dyed. Eco Tasar uses Shades of Nature, an azo-free dye. Most of the dying is done in a facility in Bhaglapur with industrial machines. Samples or small batches are pot-dyed.
Dyed Yarn is then placed back on bobbins. Bobbins are either silk or cotton and are combined in the drumming process to create blended, multi-ply yarn.
Finally, the yarn is woven into fabric. In Mustafapur, a town near Bhagalpur, there are about 500 weavers. You can hear the shuttles of the loom clanking behind the tall walls surrounding locals’ houses as you walk through. Pictured is the workshop of Mohammed Hasan, a master weaver.
After the fabric is woven, Eco Tasar staff brings the bolts of fabric to a finishing facility on the outskirts of Bhagalpur that does the mending, washing and drying, softening, and ironing.
Finished fabric returns to Eco Tasar’s office in Bhagalpur which employs 18-20 people, sometimes up to 40, and handles the buying of cocoons and yarns, the dying, storing of finished product, and the issuing or orders to the weavers. There about 20 to 25 master weavers working with Eco Tasar that come to the office to pick up the yarn and deliver the fabric about 2 to 3 times a week.
At long last, bolts of finished fabric are sent to Eco Tasar’s cut and sew facility in Delhi, where they are sewn into pillows, packed, and shipped to West Elm.