Kanchipuram Silk Guide

Kanchipuram Silk Buying Guide

“How do I look?” Padma asked me, nonchalantly, staring at her reflection in the large mirror.  We were in a large showroom of Silk Sarees, and a salesgirl carefully folded the saree at the right places, held them in place, and then looked at us noddingly for a reaction.  “Good” I said, “But…”.  My wife cut me off, and declared “I love this saree.  I want to buy this”.  I continued my muted protest – “first of all this is not handloom, and secondly I suspect this has a mix of polyester fiber”.  I got back in a quick retort was “Polyester, silk, handloom – does not matter.  This a beautiful saree, and I love it.”

We were in the temple town of Kanchipuram in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, India, famed as much for its tradition of Homemade silk sarees, as for its majestic temples.  They are the remnants of a weaving and dyeing tradition hundreds of years old, patronised by the Cholas, Pallavas and the Chalukyas and whose riches the West came seeking before the industrial age began.  The Nobility prized these sarees for their myriad colours, lustre, and durability.  For the common woman, it was simply a dream to be at par with the Royals.  Now, the Kanchipuram Sarees even has its own Geographical Indications Tag, offering the artisans who weave them legal protection against fakes.

Padma and I were in Kanchipuram for different reasons.  She came to shop for handloom silk sarees that this town is so famous for, and wanted me to come along for company, and help her in negotiation with the traders. I wanted to understand the silk saree, its designs, production process, raw materials and help rationalize the vast differences in the selling price.  In the process, I wanted to understand the tradition of the hand woven sarees, and track its journey from its roots.  For me, buying any product should entail understanding and breaking down its features, cost structure.  We recently purchased a washing machine, and it was relatively easy to compare the factors – top vs front loading, steel vs plastic drum, belt driven vs direct drive motor, spin speeds of 800 rpm vs 1200 rpm, electronic vs mechanical display, warranty period, cost of spare parts, brand value etc. and then value them.  This was easy.  But anytime I go with Padma to purchase a saree, I would be scratching my head in confusion, not understanding why a certain saree cost Rs 36,000 while a similar looking saree in a competing store was a tenth of that price.

I was trying to analyze how Indian women base their silk saree buying decisions.  I am not male chauvinistic, but have to say, it is certainly not based on scientific reasoning.  I get too technical for anything, but Padma looks for something else.  Why do hand crafted sarees cost more than their machine woven counterparts?  What is zari, and why do women fancy it?  Does it really matter if the saree is woven of pure silk, or mixed with poly fiber?  How does thickness and weight of the saree matter?  I did not know the answers when I started asking these questions.  I found no universal truths, but I discovered many facts – about silk, a woman’s identity and the pleasure she derives by draping herself with certain sarees.  I hope to carry the reader with me in uncovering some myths associated with silk sarees.

So this set me on a mission to understand Silk, its supply chain and saree weaving so that they can wear and carry silk saree with grace and  in the process demystify the saree buying process.

Sericulture, the practice of domesticating silk worms for the production of raw silk, has been in existence in China for thousands of  years.  The World was so fascinated by Chinese silk, that silk was traded from one country to another, from one kingdom to another, and eventually reached Europe via a route that is well documented and famous called the Silk Road.  Europe was in the dark ages when Chinese silk was getting popular.  For thousands of years, the Chinese guarded the process of silk making, and threatened its citizens with the death penalty should anyone reveal the secrets to outsiders.

To understand how silk is made, first let us understand the lifecycle of a silk worm.  The silkworm eggs once laid, takes two weeks to hatch into a larva.  The larve feeds continuously on mulberry leaves, and after molting several times, enters the pupa phase. In this phase, the larva (silk worm) produces a fine thread from its salivary glands and wraps itself using this thread.  This fine thread is raw, natural silk.  The larva wraps itself inside a coccoon, that is made using this silk.

To emerge from this phase to an adult Silk Moth, the silkworm has to break out of the coccoon.  Nature has endowed it with a special proteolytic enzyme that it releases, which makes a hole in the silk coccoon.  This enzyme also ruins the silk threads and destroys it.

So the only way for human beings to exploit this natural silk is to kill the silkworm in the pupa phase, and prevent it from damaging the coccoon.  This is done by placing the coccoon in boiling water during which the silkworm dies, and the water makes the coccoon easier to unravel.

So yes, the silk worm is killed in order to produce silk for human consumption. Each coccoon yields anywhere from 300m to 900m of raw silk. Also,  6 – 9 kg of Coccoon is required to yield 1 kg of raw silk yarn.  So depending on the type and weight of the silk saree, anywhere from 5000 to 10000 silkworms are killed in order to produce sufficient raw silk required for one silk saree.  No wonder,  before wearing it for the first time, several Hindus adorn the Silk saree with kumkum and pray. They ask forgiveness for unknowingly snuffing out so many lives in order that he or she could enjoy this beatiful work of art, and also pray for good things to happen while wearing this.

At the time this article is published, prices of Coccoons cultured in India have fallen significantly to Rs 100/kg.  This is a result of the recent Government action lowering import tariffs for coccoons from 30% to 5%, so Chinese cultured coccoons are flooding the Indian market, causing significant grievance to the Indian rearers.  On the contrary, the weavers welcome this move as this enables them to use cheaper silk enabling better prospects for sale of the sarees.  Working backwords, the cost of silk yarn that goes into a (600gm) Saree ranges from Rs 500 to Rs 1500.

The silk yarn is dyed prior to weaving.  Neither the silk yarn is produced in Kanchipuram, nor is it dyed there.  Most of the weavers source the silk yarn from Bangalore.

Since silk is a natural protein generated by a living organism, it behaves similar to other natural proteins, such as hair.  So the best way of testing if it is genuine silk is by what is known as a burn test.  Burning silk smells similar to burning hair, and leaves a grey ash residue that crumbles when crushed.  Polyester or Nylon, when burned, melt, and leave a solid residue with a miniscule amount of ash.

Materials Primer: Zari

Every traditional silk sari has a shiny component that is referred to as Jari or Zari.  In South India, Jari is also known as Pattu.  In ancient times, the Royals found a way of showing off their wealth by mixing Gold and Silver in their clothing. Strips of Gold and Silver were cut into fine wires and incorporated into the clothing,  Even today, Real Jari/Zari/Pattu refers to pure Gold or Silver tinsel threads used in clothing.

The practice of mixing real Jari into sarees continued almost until the 19th century.  Then a Silk saree was made of pure silk mixed with real Jari. This was painstakingly hand crafted over several months, and each saree was unique and a masterpiece. So if you inherited any ancestral silk sarees, chances are they are precious.

The way Zari is made is by flattening a Silver Wire of 50 SWG using rollers, and coiling it around a silk core converting it into silver thread. This thread is electroplated with 24 Carat Gold in a Cyanide solution, and the resultant Zari is Reeled, Flattened and Packed.  Most of the Zari in India is produced in Surat. The flattening of the Silver wire is a unique process, and its technique is a closely guarded secret held by a few families living in Surat. So most Zari producers source it from there.

Zari is usually measured in a unit called Marc.  One Marc is 19,200 meters or approximately 242 grams.   As commodity prices are on the rise, the current price of zari is Rs. 11,500 per Marc  as compared to Rs. 3,150 in 2005.  According to the government standards, one Marc of zari should contain 55 to 57% silver and 0.2 to 0.6% gold and 24% silk, but in order to cut costs the private owners use spurious zari. The artificial zari costs Rs. 250-300 per Marc, substantially reducing the overall cost of a duplicate saree.

A good way of testing if Zari is pure is by a technique called X-Ray Fluoroscence.  The Tamil Nadu Government has set up an analyzer in Kanchipuram that could be availed to test if a silk saree contains pure Zari at a nominal cost.

It is essential to note that it is not possible for anyone to sell a genuine handwoven silk saree with real zari for a cheap price, say Rs 8,000.  Just the cost of the silk,  zari and labour would amount to that price.  It is difficult to generalize as it really depends on the saree design, and how much zari is used in it.


Weavers in Kanchipuram continue to face the wrath of the capitalist markets. If machines can mass produce what the traditional weavers of yore hand crafted for centuries, at a lower cost, and offer more choices, the weavers have no choice but bow before the market forces.  Weavers children who normally follow the family tradition, are now seeking greener pastures.  The penetration of mass media, internet and mobile telephony has certainly shrunk the World and raised the hopes and aspirations of these craftsmen, and aided them to seek alternative professions.

Traditional motifs on Kanchipuram Saree depicted stories from folklore, royal animals such as elephants and horses, majestic birds such as peacocks and parrots, flowers such as lotus, diamond, temples and other art forms. In other words, sarees worn by the nobility conveyed who they are  – majesty, grandeur and pomp.  Cotton sarees are ornamented with threads and some silk sarees are also woven with thread instead of pure zari.

The industrial revolution changed the rules of production.  Mass production of everything from yarn to fabrics gradually made everything affordable and widely used.  New discoveries in Chemistry led to textile yarns such as Nylon and Polyester after the First World War.  In a well written article on the plight of Kanchipuram weavers (referenced below), three journalists describe the working conditions and wages of weavers. It is heartbreaking to note that weavers do not earn even minimum wages for the effort they put in.

The number of handlooms in India is estimated at 300,000 while the number of power looms at around 30,000.The handlooms are in dire straits as they are affected from two sides – one one side, their children shy away from the tradition of weaving, and are pursuing other vocations for a career.  On the other side, power looms and imports are hitting hard and making it more difficult for handlooms to be commercially viable.

Customers today face all these choices when they go to purchase a saree.  Silk is an age old natural fiber and has been used for textiles for milleniums.  In today’s age, with all the choices of textile fibers, is it still worth to wear Silk Sarees? Well, the answer depends on what you really want to wear.

A silk saree selling for Rs 8000 to Rs 10,000 or less, is unlikely to be a genuine kanchipuram handwoven silk saree.  So how do you ensure you are buying a real one?  First, buy from a reputed store or cooperative.  The Silk Board of India, a Government of India institute designated to promote Silk, has come with the concept of a “Silk Mark” label that it confers on genuine silk sarees.  They will test any saree with such a label in order to promote and protect that label.  Similarly, for testing genuineness of zari, the Tamil Nadu Government’s Zari Test facility in Kanchipuram  can test zari for genuiness for a nominal payment of Rs 40 per test.  Several shops also let you cut out a few filaments and do your own burn test if they are confident it is genuine silk.

If you were misinformed that silk worms are not killed during the production of silk, and you care about this, you should not be using silk.  Please do note that every other material is a culprit of some sort – for example, another natural fiber that is widely used, cotton, is guilty of consuming ten times more water than say tomatoes, and is making matters worse in a country which is already reeling under water scarcity.

How do you distinguish between a handloom vs a powerloom saree?  Handlooms have a different touch and feel compared to powerloom sarees.  Also, most powerlooms tend to mix manmade fibers with silk in their production, so that gives it a different texture.  No powerloom saree uses 100% silk.

Does it matter if it is handloom or powerloom?  To answer this, you should look at it from different perspectives.

From a design perspective, today, it does not matter so much.  Several centuries back, only skilled weavers could produce stunning motifs and designs, while powerlooms spitted out bland versions.  The computer controlled powerlooms of today are capable of reproducing anything that a skilled weaver can handcraft. From an economy perspective, yes generations of weavers are involved in the weaving trade, and their subsistence is threatened by the powerlooms.  So handcrafted sarees give them an avenue to sustain their profession, and express their creativity.

Is it really beneficial to wear silk?  Not really. it was fancied by the World over when the only choice was cotton.  With advances in technology, clothing today can be made using a slew of manmade fibers such as polyester, nylon, viscose and rayon; and natural fibers such as cotton, silk, wool etc.  Cotton has certain properties that keep us comfortable.  Wool keeps our body warm.  Silk is soft and durable.  In contrast, manmade fibers are not liked as much by most people.  The  reason they are so widely used is cost.  With an indefinite supply of raw materials, highly mechanised production, and and endless variety of colors and designs, manmade fibers have found mass appeal and widespread acceptance.  Natural fibers supply is dependant on the crop or the animals that produce them.

Tradition in India dictates the use of silk sares for special occasions, and the tradition keeps the industry going.  The advantages of silk sarees are they are very durable, and they have a resale value while all other sarees have no resale value.  Additionally, handcrafted silk sarees can be unique and makes you stand out.