Sustainable Fashion from North-East India
November December 2017
A Silk Route Paved by Local Weavers
Ryndia, a rare silk from north-east India, has thermal properties that make it unique. Weaving it is a means of livelihood for local communities, and designing with it is bringing Ryndia on global runways.
In Meghalaya, members of the Ri-Bhoi community hold much value for their Niang Ryndia or eri silkworm from which they organically produce the Ryndia silk. Rather popular in this north-eastern state, the rare silk, occupies a special place in the hearts, homes, and workstations of the locals. Over the years, spinning and weaving yarn made from the silk, has helped many from the community to sustain themselves economically, and brought the various members, closer.
The weavers have traditional ways in which they work around the silk, and also some local legends they live with. It is believed that women who do not know the traditional weave do not find themselves a husband. Although, merely a myth revolving in the small community, it signifies the importance Ryndia has in the lives of the locals.
Ryndia silk is extracted when the Niang Ryndia hatches its worms. Reared across the state, the silkworm is fed with barynda, which makes for its main food, other than the plants it feeds on. After the worm has disposed off its bodily waste, it climbs back up to begin the process of shedding its cocoon. It is the completion of this natural cycle that the locals wait for, before they begin picking the cocoon to process it into a yarn.
The tedious process of yarn making is done by hand, using locally available products and traditional equipment, all of it being raw and natural. After being soaked in water and put on a stove, the cocoon is wrapped in big leaves and drained of excess water. The weavers then spread out swatches of the cocoon to make the yarn. Despite the lengthy process, some women, in order to fend for their families, work single-handedly on it, right from sourcing the cocoon to making the yarn, weaving it into a fabric, and selling it to handful of customers from the surrounding region.
Lately, the Ryndia silk has been getting global recognition and a showcase at the likes of Fashion International, London Fashion Week and Couture Fashion Week in New York. Designer Daniel Syiem and his business partner Janessaline Pyngrope, with their fashion house Daniel Syiem’s Ethnic Fashion House (DSEHF) are working closely with the community, contributing to the world of sustainable fashion, helping on elevating the local weavers, and preserving heritage.
Rendering the Ryndia
For Syiem and Pyngrope, dealing with Ryndia has never merely been about commerce, for had it been so they would not have strived to bring this ‘slow fashion’ to a global platform. “There are seasonal timelines for the production of the Ryndia fabric. The supply of raw material is thus erratic and in limited quantity; and the process cannot be tampered or else we will lose focus of maintaining its organic nature,” says Pyngrope.
Rynida is a 100 pc organic fabric with versatile qualities like having thermal properties, i.e., it is cool when worn in summers and warm during use in low temperatures. Staying honest to the properties of the fabric, Syiem also uses vegetables like turmeric, violet, ochre, olive, indigo, amaranth, ivory, etc., to make colours for Ryndia. “The dyeing of the fabric too is done in a traditional method,” shares Pyngrope.
Not just environment-friendly in nature, the making of fashion at DSEFH is also socially responsible. “Our raw material is directly linked to the biodiversity conservation of the weaving villages we work with. Moreover, we focus on collaboration projects to create community-made products that directly impact indigenous communities and their traditional lifestyle, food and culture. Little things go a long way to make a big difference, so we make sure that even a single button or fastener is made out of natural products like bamboo, pine cone or wood , maintaining our ethos for a sustainable product,” comments Pyngrope.
Sticking to their roots, however, becomes challenging for the duo, who say they do not find as many takers for Ryndia in Indian market. Investment costs also shoot up for them as they cater to the tastes of foreign clientele seeking a traditional fabric.
“It is not easy to sell traditional art forms as they are. It is not that people do not want to use these forms, rather they love to use heritage fabrics, prints, embroideries but it has to be revamped a little to suit today’s sensibilities. That is why our core USP is giving contemporary styling and international design to a heritage craft. It is the best of both worlds. Although the pitfall is that, this is time consuming and does not follow regular fashion season launches, our styles are definitely unique and sought after,” explains Pyngrope.
Ryndia has a strong following in Europe, London and Singapore. The fabric has takers in the Indian market too, but as the segment of sustainable fashion is still at a nascent stage, evolving only by the day, it leaves only a niche market for designers like Syiem, for now; and hopes in the eyes of the local weavers he works with.
Strong roots, soft threads
An eco-friendly fashion movement, Ryndia seems to be rendering much more than sustainable fashion. It is empowering women weavers of local communities, which are seeking ways to preserve their craft.
“Apart from the fact that our work has zero pollution, no chemicals, an organic production, and sustainable use of energy, our work process massively uplifts the locals,” says Pyngrope. “The social impact we create for our weavers is sustainable livelihoods for communities, health impact, capacity building and knowledge sharing. Our economic impact includes profit sharing with the weaver group, reinvesting into better technologies for more efficiency on returns on investments, aiding them in innovating on the products and designs,” she elucidates.
As a company, the profit margins of DSEFH are affected as it pays a premium price to weavers who are keeping alive the art of traditionally weaving Ryndia; but as the space for sustainable fashion seems to be expanding in the global market, the future looks promising.
“Of late, the market for sustainable fashion has picked up. People are more ecoconscious and want to contribute towards livelihoods of the artisans at the grass root level,” says Pyngrope . “Today’s consumer is more aware of their buying choices and their carbon footprint. Thus having something that is contributing to the planet and artisans is definitely a motivator for them to buy from us,” she concludes.
Other than the Ri-Bhoi community, Syiem also works with the Mizo and Naga communities, trying to strengthen the roots of Ryndia stronger, and yarning softer threads for a more sustainable future.