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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Pandemic spins a new avatar for Assam’s eri silk: face masks

Textile experts believe that Assam’s eri silk could be a worthy candidate for medical textile

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati | Updated: April 27, 2020 3:26:10 pm
A batch of eri silk cocoons. The speciality silk, which is reared without killing the silkworm, is also known as ‘ahimsa’ or non-violent skin. Express photo by Tora Agarwala

Doi’r Paani, Eri’r Kani— it was this Assamese proverb that got textile entrepreneur Dilip Barooah thinking. “’Eri is as healthy as curd’ is something we have often heard and that was the base to connect eri, a raw silk variety in Assam, with medical textiles.”

Just a few months ago, workers at Barooah’s silk-based industrial unit, Fabric Plus, had started making eri face-masks. “At the point the coronavirus was something that we associated only with China,” says Barooah, who has been working with indigenous silk (muga, eri etc) for three decades, manufacturing and exporting to both domestic and international markets. It is only in the past two years that his factories have branched out into medical textiles. “Little did I know that how things would change that in three months and how relevant my mask experiments would become,” says Barooah.

With the spread of the novel coronavirus, face masks are now considered essential across the world. In India too, several states have mandated its use in public, as per the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare. While the guidelines for such masks are more stringent for frontline medical workers, a mask for the common man can be fashioned in quick easy steps, out of any cloth available at home.

Assam-based silk industrial unit, Fabric Plus, is now making medical textiles including eri face masks. Photo Courtesy: Dilip Barooah

For Barooah, the eri face mask was an experiment he did on a hunch.

At his factory in Boragaon, on the outskirts of Guwahati, workers  — currently functioning at 20 per cent of their usual strength — are now producing three-fold eri silk face masks. His factories, for the last two years, have been producing other medical-grade nurse uniforms, hospital linen etc for various institutions, with the permission of the National Health Mission (NHM).

“Before the lockdown, I had sent eri samples to be tested as a medical textile. A laboratory in Bengaluru sent us the results via Whatsapp,” says Barooah, “While there is a lot of research and experimentation still to be done, it does give us reason to think that eri has great potential as medical textile.”

Why eri?

Two decades ago, eri was relatively unknown beyond the regions that produced it but its non-violent production made it popular among the environmentally-conscious. “They call it ahimsa silk,” says Tanmai Das, Head of Department, Textile Technology at the Assam Textile Institute, “Basically, it is processed without killing the silk worm. Take any other silk, paat, muga — every other process involves killing the worm.”

Adds Barooah, “Eri products are obtained from the fibres extracted from the eri cocoons that protect the worm till it transforms itself into a matured moth. Unlike silkworm cocoons, eri cocoons have an open-hatch, through which the moth can escape.”

An eri face mask (top; white) made by Fabric Plus. Photo Courtesy: Dilip Barooah

Sualkuchi-based eri expert Narmohan Das speaks about its thermal qualities. “In winters, it keeps you warm. In summers — it functions int he exact opposite way,” he says, “It keeps you cool.”

Barooah says there are a number of other factors that make eri especially suitable as a face mask material. “It is tested to be splash resistant, odourless, and has a decent particle filtration efficiency — depending on the construction,” he says.

While many textile experts spoke to say there is no conclusive proof that eri is fit to use as a medical textile, they conceded that there was enough reason to investigate it.

According to Assam Textile Institute’s Das, the most important property for a fabric is air permeability or its ability to filter particulate matter. “Why are you wearing a mask? So microorganisms don’t get into your respiratory tract. So it will matter how you have woven it,” he says. “In that sense, eri does not have an edge over, say, cotton when it comes to making a mask. It depends on how the fabric is constructed.”

However, it cannot be denied that eri has several other properties that make it a suitable mask candidate. “It is homegrown, it is ecologically sound, and is known to be a hypo-allergenic natural fibre. A mask is something that comes in close contact with your face, your nose, your eyes,” says Das, “You wouldn’t want your skin to react to it.”

Anjan Barua, a textile technologist, who has 20 years of experience of production of varied qualities of yarn and now a design consultant at the Kohua D’Handloom Cafe in Guwahati, speaks of the softness of eri. “It’s just the way eri feels: soft and comfortable against your skin,” says Barua, “You often see nurses and medical students with marks on their faces after wearing a mask for long hours. But fabrics like eri are much softer.” This is because eri has a Wool Comfort Meter (the indicator of how comfortable a material is for the wearer) value up to 500. Moreover, according to Barooah, tests reveal that eri is washable/reusable and “does not get thinner even after repeated washing like other fabrics.”

A boon to the industry

Assam’s textile industry is currently going through a slump owing to the nationwide lockdown.

“Now is the time to promote eri as a possible face mask material,” says Kohua D’Handloom Cafe’s Barua, “For six months to a year, there won’t be many social gatherings. There will be far less marriages and receptions. People will invest less in dress material.”

Experts feel that even after years, eri’s true worth has is yet to be tapped. “We need to do more research and development,” says Barooah. The entreprenuer is now in talks with the Institute of Advanced Study in Science & Technology (IASST), Assam, and IIT-Guwahati, to pursue more research on eri potential in medical textiles.

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