Our next corporate visit brought us to Himatsingka Seide Limited, a silk textile manufacturer about 50 miles outside Bangalore. Himatsingka makes high quality silk fabrics for interior designers in India and export to Western Europe, the US and other countries. The company, which is traded on the Bombay and National Stock Exchanges, did 165.20 Rupees Crore last year, or approximately US$37.5M.* New initiatives include the opening of a ready-made bed linen factory and expansion of the Indian-based Atmosphere branded stores, which carry luxury Himatsingka fabrics for made-to-order home furnishings.
Founder and CEO Dinesh Himatsingka graciously greeted us at his company entrance and gave us an overview of the factory floor and the silk industry. Himatsingka receives all its raw silk from China, which is the largest producer of this raw material in the world with about 80% market share. The Chinese government controls the price of silk and, like so many commodities, keeps it artificially low to promote export. This makes sourcing for Himatsingka somewhat easy and somewhat difficult -- the price is constant for years and then randomly spikes. Therefore he has to keep reserves.
*In the Indian numbering system, a Crore is equivalent to 10M. Similarly, a Lakh is equivalent to 100K. This can create quite a bit of confusion for outsiders as not only is the terminology different, but so are the comma separators. So that 30M (3 Crore) would be written 3,00,00,000. Also, I used 44 Rps/USD for the exchange rate.
For more on silk from Wikipedia:
"Wild silks" are produced by caterpillars other than the mulberry silkworm (Bombyx mori). The term "wild" implies that they are not capable of being domesticated and artificially cultivated like Bombyx mori. Aside from differences in colours and textures, they all differ in one major respect from the domesticated varieties: the cocoons that are gathered in the wild have usually already been damaged by the emerging moth before the cocoons are gathered, and thus the single thread that makes up the cocoon has been torn into shorter lengths. Commercially reared silkworm pupae are killed before the adult moths emerge by dipping them in boiling water or piercing them with a needle (!), thus allowing the whole cocoon to be unravelled as one continuous thread. This allows a much stronger cloth to be woven from the silk.
Chinese peasants perform the needle-in-cocoon silk extraction on a mass scale -- the industry produces billions of pounds a year. The silk Himatsingka receives from China is of the 'wild' category. The company's core competency or expertise is in strengthening, dyeing and designing the raw material into high quality textiles.
After the industry overview, we got a factory tour, my first. Himatsingka is an "industrial boutique" in the sense that they make high quality in small quantity with a design studio in-house as well as the heavy machinery to process the raw material.
My personal favorite part of the tour was the design studio. It reminded me of the light-filled painting studios at the top of the arts school where I went to summer camp. They have about 5 designers who draw inspiration from Western design magazines, trips to fabric shows around the world and residencies from a RISDY (Rhode Island School of Design) professor and other prominent design professionals. They also just started experimenting with a new laser technology that micro-cuts designs.
We had an non-linear walk through the production line which I'll reassemble as a linear tour so it makes more sense. First the silk is received in bulky brown bags from China as wispy but relatively rough white tuffs, almost like unbleached cotton balls or my grandmother's hair.
Next it enters the Spinning division, where it is spun and cleaned many, many times with a variety of progressively fine-tuned machinery. The process is carefully monitored with custom-designed process control systems while state-of-the-art machinery is made in Germany, Italy and India.
The resulting product is a cone of silk yarn which can be sold to other weavers (we saw a batch headed for Europe) or transfered to the Weaving division, where it is further twisted and then dyed with chemicals. Himatsingka used to use natural dyes, but synthetic chemicals cause less breakage, require much less time to take and are actually better for the environment and worker conditions.
In the Weaving rooms, yarns of various colored and silk/wool/cotton mix are pulled one thread a time into a weaving machine. These weaving machines are the coolest. Hundreds of taught individual fabric strings, stretched from loaders up 20' near the factory ceiling, are guided into a sliding bar that stitches beautiful geometric, floral and fleur di lis patterns right under your eyes.
Machinery throughout the Weaving division are very loud, particularly in this last stiching stage where a metal-on-metal thhwwitttch scrapes every other second. Most of the workers wear earplugs as they stand in the din for 8 hour shifts, ensuring the machinery's progress is continually on track.
After they are woven, the textiles are rolled and loaded into an industrial cleaner reminiscent of the heavy machinery featured in that Chaplin-eqsue episode of Bugs Bunny wherein Bugs visits a factory. The fabric is unrolled, pulled upside down, crosswise and right-side up in a horizontal maze of gears and wheels. It gets progressively shinier, until it reaches the maze end, and is rolled up again by a worker, who then separates and quickly reattaches the interminable length of fabric.
Himatsingka turns out textiles 24 hours a day, producing enough thread to circle the Earth 35 times every day! The factory runs on electricity purchased from the government controlled utility, but also houses a conventional power generator which can run in case of outages or if electricity costs rise to high. The facility also produces large amounts of water waste, but cleans and reuses the water entirely to save money and preserve natural resources. They employ several hundred workers and, like many Indian companies, "sponsor" several nearby villages, often where workers reside, by building schools, providing health service and undertaking other civil projects.
Post-trip addendum (for my Anthropology of Corporations class):
While we're on the subject of silk production, I have to relate one more experience from Varanasi, when I went to visit a string of small-scale silk textile weavers with my hotel guide. Actually, the owner of the hotel also employed the weavers and they definately tried to give me the shake-down on buying some stunning scarves and shawls. Varanasi silk is deservedly famous, though his stuff, especially after I saw it produced, raised some quality concerns. That said, the production process was very interesting. Actually it was exactly like the mechanical weavers we saw at Himatsingka, but instead of a guy in a hard hat watching the metal looms, it was guy without shoes using his feet and hands to power a wooden thing that spit out patterns not according to a computer program design but a punch card clapper. They had one of these wooden contraptions at Himatsingka, but it was relegated to the upstairs museum! Anyway, my hotel owner apparently had an extensive network of these looms working for him because we ducked in and out of dozens of weavers. Interesting, there wasn't much in the way of family relations in these house factories, but at Himatsingka, the design studio leader was sister-in-law of the CEO, whose son was leading the investment in a new bed linen facility. Later, at a silk merchant's shop in Pushkar, I confirmed that my hotel owner was something of an outsider as a Muslim in Varanasi and made matters worse by calling his "Shree Kreepa," after an Indian god.
Here's a (sad & long) BBC News video with some footage of the Varanais weavers, who apparently in a lot of economic trouble with China moving in on their market.