The third floor at Chennai’s top-selling silk store, Nalli, housing saris priced above Rs5,000, bore a deserted look on a recent Tuesday until five women, giggling and gasping, barged in to buy nearly 80 saris for close to 12 lakh. Shruti Patel, 28, and her female relatives had flown in from Ahmedabad the previous day to make purchases ahead of a December wedding in the family.

The onslaught of buyers from various parts of the country may be shrinking the stacks of hand-woven silk saris from Kanchipuram, Salem and Arni at the nearly century-old sari retailer Nalli’s store in Chennai. But new stocks are not replacing the decreasing piles at the same rate. And it is likely that Tamil Nadu’s popular silk saris, interleaved and bordered with silver and gold-dipped silk strands, or zari, disappear from the shelves altogether.

Despite intense demand for the traditional Kanchipuram saris, a diminishing labour force fleeing to better-paying factory jobs has been putting the brakes on supply. And the pressure has been kept up by a surge in gold prices.

“Zari is one of the biggest costs of making a sari and its prices have spiked, adding to our headache of rising silk prices," says D.H. Gururaj Rao, president of the Silk Cloth Merchants Association in Arni, a town about 60km from Kanchipuram that rose to fame in the 1980s with its softer and cheaper silk saris.

Losing sheen: Workers at apowerloom in Arni. It takes one day to make a sari on a powerloom, while hand-weaving takes 10-15 days. Also, while the traditional method costs Rs1,500-2,000 per worker, the figure is less than 10% of that on powerlooms. 2. D.H. Gururaj Rao, president of the Silk Cloth Merchants Association in Arni, displays a sari. Five years ago, Rao sourced saris from 120 weavers, but that number has dropped to 80 today. 3. A traditional weaver checks the silk threads on a handloom. With 12-hour workdays, no weekends off and delayed wages, there is little incentive for weavers’ children to follow their parents’ poverty and debt-ridden footsteps. Photo: Ganesh/Mint

“It is a worrying trend and it is only going to get worse with global manufacturers filling truckloads of our boys to work at their factories," says C.K. Vajrevelu, co-founder of a Kanchipuram-based weavers’ cooperative.

Kanchipuram district’s Oragadam and Sriperumbudur areas are factory bases to several multinational companies, including the world’s largest cellphone maker Nokia Oyj and the Indian units of Korean car company Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd and US auto company Ford Motor Co.

Vajrevelu’s eldest son is a building contractor, his second son is a lab technician in a hospital and the youngest one is an engineer in Saudi Arabia. The drop in annual sales of the 1,800-member Kanchipuram cooperative to Rs28 crore in 2009, from Rs30 crore the previous year, for the first time in six years, shows such vocational digression is valid.

“The interest in a profession isn’t hereditary and I don’t have it," says Rao’s 28-year-old son D.G. Sathyavijayan, a Chennai-based relationship manager with financial website “When I was younger, we could sense the industry’s prosperity during festival celebrations. But all that’s faded."

At T Nagar, where Patel, her aunts and nieces were shopping, the saris were cheaper than the Kanchipuram varieties sold in Ahmedabad. Still, Patel said the prices were higher than expected. And part of the answer lay right next door. This bustling shopping hub of Chennai is teeming not just with silk sari stores, but also gold jewellery shops.

A woman weaves silk by hand. The price of the coarse white yarn obtained from unwinding cocoons fed on mulberry leaves has tripled to Rs2,400 a kg, as has the rate for a zari bobbin that today costs Rs1,500. Photo: Ganesh/Mint

As a result, a sari that sold for Rs3,000 in 2005 today sells for at least Rs5,000. And that’s left the Kanchipuram cooperative with an increasing stockpile of unsold saris as consumers have downgraded to buy cheaper powerloom saris with artificial zaris.

Powerloom saris are cheaper simply because it is a faster technique requiring far less labour. While it takes about 10-15 days to hand weave a sari in a mechanical loom for manpower costs of Rs1,500-2,000, a labourer operating an electricity-run powerloom can make a sari a day for wages of Rs120. But powerloom saris come with artificial zari as the delicate real variety breaks when fixed on to the rapidly weaving powerloom.

“As sari prices have spiked, consumers have switched to cheaper powerloom saris," says T.K. Vinayakam, a purchase manager with Nalli. In recent years, Vinayakam has noticed that the usually splurging non-resident Indians visiting India for a family wedding are increasingly choosing the low-cost zari bordered, powerloom saris for that one-time wear at the function. Amid surging sari prices, Nalli holds just half the inventory it used to stock in 2005 as sari prices too depreciate with age, resulting in losses.

About 10km from Arni past sugarcane fields is another teetering weaving village, Nesal. A.R. Selvaraj has been a weaver ever since he was pulled out of school and engaged as a child labourer nearly four decades ago. He had given thought to upgrading to a powerloom machine. But getting a Rs1 lakh loan from a bank was nearly impossible.

With three handloom machines on lease, frozen wage rates and a diabetic wife nursing a foot injury that is taking months to heal, Selvaraj nurses hopes of moving to Chennai.

“Even a watchman in Chennai gets Rs5,000 a month to just sit around," says Selvaraj, who has a Rs1 lakh debt largely taken over the past one year to treat his wife. “So why should I slog it out here?"