Silk is a popular textile and fibre, however its production process and environmental impact have been questioned. In this concise guide, we compare silk to other materials to determine whether or not it is more sustainable, environmentally friendly, or cruelty free.
What Is Silk?
Silk is a fabric that has been around for a long time and is still highly sought for today. The silkworm's cocoon is the source of the natural filament that is used to create the fabric, which is then processed via a series of steps including extraction, spinning, dying, and weaving to create the final product. The first biomolecular evidence of silk was discovered at a Neolithic site in the Henan region, dating back 8,500 years, indicating that the usage of silk in fabric originated in ancient China. Although silk is a renewable and biodegradable material, its manufacturing process has a greater ecological footprint than that of other natural fibre textiles. Search for fabrics that have been certified as organic, such as silk. The synthetic spider silk has alternatives such as wild silk, which is crafted from the newly hatched cocoons of wild moths (a new innovation in bioengineering).
Legend has it that the Chinese Empress Xi Lingshi uncovered this priceless textile. The Empress was sipping tea among the mulberry bushes one sunny day in the 27th century BCE when a cocoon accidentally landed in her mug. The Empress marvelled at the iridescent threads as the cocoon began to unwind. According to folklore, the young queen taught the ladies of her court how to weave silk by inventing the reel and loom.
The ancient commerce route between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe was named after the silk that was so highly sought after by merchants. As a result of the high value they placed on this export, the Chinese Imperialists maintained their production methods a closely guarded secret. The Roman Empire did not learn how to make silk until the year 550 A.D. According to legend, two sneaky monks hid silkworm eggs in their walking canes and hobbled all the way to Constantinople on the orders of Roman Emperor Justinian.
What Was the Secret of the Empress’s Success?
The interior cocoon of a silkworm is made up of long threads that are spun into silk. The worm produces the saliva fibres to keep itself warm before metamorphosis. After being gathered, raw silk threads are spooled together and spun into commercial products.
When done well, silk manufacturing is possible to achieve a state of calm and efficiency. The raw mulberry leaves that the silkworms eat are also free of gluten and dairy. The mulberry tree can withstand high levels of pollution and is simple to grow. The bark of the tree can be utilised for medical purposes, while the fruit can be baked into pies or used as a natural dye. The worms can be fed mulberry leaves, and the worms can then be used to feed the farmers.
While the silkworms themselves must be sacrificed, their pupae are put to good use. In many parts of Asia, they are used as a snack due to their high protein content. The hard shells can be composted or used to stuff pillows. Choose your silks wisely, as they may have been treated with chemicals during washing or degumming.
What About The Worms?
The mulberry silkworm, or bombyx mori, is responsible for the production of the vast majority of the world's commercial silk. In order to exit from its cocoon, a silkworm moth, when left to its own devices, will create a tiny hole. However, doing so destroys the inner cocoon's lengthy silk threads. In order to preserve the silk's long strands, the cocoon (with the worm within) is typically boiled throughout the production process.
The mulberry silkworm has been tamed and domesticated over time. The moths' chances of survival outside of the cocoon are low because they can't fly and need help from humans to reproduce. Maybe fried worm pupae are morally acceptable finger food. Possible non-lethal alternatives to the traditional silk production method exist. Ahimsa silk, called as "peace silk" because the moth is given time to escape the cocoon before it is boiled. Eri silk and Tussar silk are two examples of silks that adhere to the Ahimsa tenet.
Eri silk is made from domesticated silkworms that are fed castor plants and are not exploited in any way. Foraging Tussar silkworms are allowed to emerge from their cocoons before being collected from the wild. The eastern Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal are particularly fond of this particular silk brand.
Keep in mind that some businesses utilise "wild silkworms," which refers to worms that are kept in conditions resembling their natural home. Although fabrics made from wild silkworms tend to be more durable and their manufacturers use fewer chemicals, these silks may not be Ahimsa silks. Know too that while peace silk is better for the species who produce it, it may not be great for the environment.
What About The People?
One million people in China and 7.9 million people in India are employed in the silk industry, sometimes called sericulture. In various regions of India, sericulture has proven instrumental in economic growth and, in particular, the advancement of women. Unfortunately, Human Rights Watch documented the use of child slavery in the Indian silk business in 2003. The research found that approximately 350,000 children "Boiling cocoons, lugging baskets of mulberry leaves, and embroidering saris."
Wild silk is naturally ethical as the silkworms are left to eat whatever they like, are able to roam wherever they feel, and are only collected as cocoons off trees. Note, however, that the cocoons can then be steamed to kill the moth inside, with the thread reeled from the cocoon for its long filament fibre.
Mulberry silk is the highest quality silk available for purchase. The unique thing about Mulberry silk is how it is produced. The resulting cocoons are spun into raw silk fibers. Because the silkworms of the Bombyx mori moth are fed only Mulberry leaves, the resulting silk is some of the finest available in the world.
The best alternatives to expensive silk include blended silk fabrics, such as linen-silk, cotton-silk, silk velvet, organza, shantung (also known as slub silk), and even satin in some cases. These fabrics deliver much of the same, sought-after qualities as silk, but come with a much friendlier price tag.
Beyond that, there is another way to harvest silk without harming or killing silkworms. This method was developed in India, and it produces what's known as ahimsa silk. Sometimes it's referred to as ethical silk, peace silk or cruelty-free silk.
Yes, mulberry silk from The Ethical Silk Company requires just a little bit of love and attention, but it Is strong as well as beautiful and surprisingly easy to look after. You can machine wash your silk on a low-temperature, gentle cycle. Use the time-reduction setting on your machine, if you have it.
FAQs About Silk
Silk In The 21st Century
ASOS has resolved to phase out the use of silk entirely by the end of January 2019 in response to demand from customers and animal rights organisations like PETA. Taking this bold step puts the rapidly expanding retailer ahead of competitors like Zara, H&M, and GAP, all of whom have only recently begun banning mohair.
As a result of advancements in technology, we are also able to produce superior substitutes for silk. For the first time, spider silk is available to the public thanks to Bolt Threads. However, spider is not used in the manufacturing process at this company. Sugar, yeast and water are actually used to create the thread. Similar to the process of making beer, the raw silk is fermented to generate the finished product. Flexible and sturdy, this new material has a wide range of potential applications. Possible applications range from footwear and suspension ropes for bridges to protective vests and biodegradable water bottles. A collaboration with British ethical fashion designer Stella McCartney and outdoor apparel company Patagonia was just launched Patagonia. If you want to make sure that you're not contributing to slavery when purchasing silk or substitutes, use the Good On You app.
Is Silk—Fibre, Textiles, and Products—Cruelty-free and Resource-Efficient?
Common silk is derived from silkworms, an animal source of protein. Because silkworms are typically cooked to death to produce it, vegans and those opposed to animal cruelty would never purchase or wear conventional silk. Silk, on the other hand, is a generally sustainable and environmentally beneficial material (although the yield is quite small – it takes about 2500 silkworms to produce a pound of raw silk).
There is much less of an effect on the environment, water supply, and air quality than with cotton, and no pesticides are required. From a production standpoint, silk uses its inputs quite effectively (land, water, and resources required at the growing stage). Peace silk, as well as other varieties of silk like Art silk and spider silk, may be viable alternatives to standard silk.
It has been suggested that GOTS-certified cotton should be considered for its contribution to environmental sustainability, recycled cotton, 100%. TENCEL's lyocell and modal fibres, for instance, may be an option because the company is committed to sustainability and provides extensive transparency regarding its sourcing and manufacturing procedures.
The customer consumption, maintenance, and waste/recycling phases are all important to think about. Sustainable and responsible cultivation, coupled with closed loop systems, organically derived manufacturing chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco-friendly post-growing procedures and chemicals, may make some bamboos and hemps somewhat sustainable.
Creation of Silk and Its Uses
Cultivating silkworms is the first step of sericulture, also known as silk production (Bombyx mori). White caterpillars grow by feasting on fresh mulberry leaves, and after four moults they construct a cocoon out of a protein made by their bodies, which is initially a liquid but is held together by a glue called sericin. It takes about two to three days for a cocoon to be spun.
When given enough time, the silkworm inside its cocoon will transform into a moth. The metamorphosed moth will eventually release a fluid that will burn a hole in its cocoon, allowing it to emerge and complete its life cycle.
But the silk threads are broken when the silkworms emerge from the cocoon, so in silk production factories the silkworms are only kept alive until the cocoon is complete. After the caterpillars are boiled to death and the sericin gum is removed, the silk strand can be collected unharmed.
Silk fabric begins as a filament, which is unwound and spun into silk thread before being gathered on wheels and spun into yarn. About one pound of silk fabric requires the filament of about 2,600 silkworms.
Effects On The Environment From The Production Of Silk
Silk is sustainable since it is made from natural materials and biodegrades over time. In comparison to other natural fibres, however, silk looks to have a greater global environmental impact. Also, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition's Higg Index indicates that silk is more harmful to the environment than synthetic fibres. In the first place, there is the significant amount of resources needed for silk production. Temperature regulation is essential in silk farms, and both hot air and hot water are used in the harvesting of the cocoons.
Second, a great deal of water is required for the silk manufacturing process. When mulberry trees are grown in areas where clean water is scarce yet substantial amounts are needed for silk production, this dependency on the water-hungry tree can put a strain on local supplies.
Third, cleaning and dyeing silk with chemicals can contribute to water pollution, reduce the fabric's biodegradability, and increase its hazardous impact.
Both Wild Silk and Peace Silk
The production of "peace silk," also called "Ahimsa silk," does not involve the killing of silkworms. Although people have been cultivating and breeding Bombyx mori moths for thousands of years, the newly emerged adults don't fare well once they've been exposed to the elements. Because they lack the ability to fly or see, moths are defenceless when threatened. It's just a matter of time before their short lives in captivity end.
Several species of wild moths produce cocoons used to create wild silk, also known as Tussah silk or Tussar. Due to the caterpillars' varied diet, the resulting fibre is less uniform than that produced by cultured silkworms. After the moth has emerged and flown away, the cocoons can be collected, or the cocoons can be collected while the larvae are still present. This silk is prized for its rich midrange and low end tones, and has shorter fibres and a golden hue that evokes these qualities.
Vegan Substitutes for Silk
Silk is not suitable for vegans because it contains a derivative of an animal. Several different plants can be used to create threads with similar properties to silk. A fabric with the feel and look of silk can be woven from the stems of the lotus flower. Using lotus stems to create fabric is an age-old technique, but only a very little length of fabric can be made from a very large number of stems.
However, concerns have been raised about the production process and the environmental impact of silk, despite its widespread use. Ancient Chinese civilisation was likely the first to use silk in textiles, as the earliest biomolecular evidence of silk was discovered at a Neolithic site in the Henan region. More than 90% of all commercial silk is produced by the mulberry silkworm, often known as bombyx mori. Farmers can be fed by worms that have been fed mulberry leaves. Some companies use so-called "wild silkworms," which are raised in settings that mimic their native environment.
Unwound silk filament is then spun into silk thread, which is the first step in making silk fabric. It takes the filament of roughly 2,600 silkworms to make one pound of silk fabric. Important considerations include customer use, maintenance, and waste/recycling. As an animal byproduct, silk is not suited for vegetarians. From its stems, the lotus flower can yield a fabric with the look and feel of silk. Peace silk, also known as Ahimsa silk, is made without harming silkworms in any way.
- However, concerns have been raised about the production process and the environmental impact of silk, despite its widespread use.
- This short guide examines silk's sustainability, environmental friendliness, and lack of cruelty in comparison to other fabrics.
- Fabrics made from silk have been in demand for a long time and continue to do so today.
- Silk is a biodegradable and renewable resource, but its production leaves a larger environmental footprint than that of other natural fibre fabrics.
- Consider purchasing silk and other organically certified materials.
- The legendary Chinese Empress Xi Lingshi is credited with discovering the priceless textile.
- Silk Road refers to the historic trade route that connected Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
- When the Roman Empire finally figured out how to produce silk, it was the year 550. Two sly monks, on the direction of Roman Emperor Justinian, allegedly smuggled silkworm eggs in their canes and limped all the way to Constantinople.
- Manufacturing silk may be peaceful and effective if done right.
- The mulberry tree is hardy enough to survive in heavily polluted areas and requires little care once established.
- Farmers can be fed by worms that have been fed mulberry leaves.
- Take care while shopping for silks because they may have been exposed to chemicals during the washing or degumming processes.
- The majority of the world's commercial silk is produced by the mulberry silkworm, also known as bombyx mori.
- The cocoon (and the worm inside) are routinely cooked at various points in the manufacturing process to maintain the silk's lengthy threads.
- The silkworm that feeds on mulberry trees has been domesticated.
- There may be methods of producing silk other than killing silkworms.
- You can find silks that uphold the Ahimsa principle in fabrics like Eri and Tussar.
- The cocoons of Tussar silkworms are left open so that the worms can go out and forage for food before being harvested.
- Keep in mind that while peace silk benefits the producers, it may not be the best option for the planet.
- Silk production, also known as sericulture, provides jobs for one million Chinese and 7.9 million Indians.
- Sericulture has been crucial to the development of the economy and the empowerment of women in many parts of India.
- Child labour was confirmed by Human Rights Watch in the Indian silk trade in 2003.
- Silk As a result of pressure from customers and animal rights groups like PETA, ASOS has decided to completely stop using silk by the end of January 2019.
- The rapidly growing store has taken a significant move in the right direction by banning mohair before competitors like Zara, H&M, and GAP.
- Technology has allowed us to create excellent alternatives to silk.
- Bolt Threads has made spider silk commercially available for the very first time.
- This novel material's versatility stems from its ability to be both flexible and strong.
- Many things, such as shoes, bridge suspension ropes, protective jackets, and biodegradable water bottles, could benefit from this material.
- By using the Good On You app, you can ensure that your purchases of silk and silk alternatives do not support modern slavery.
- Possible alternatives to conventional silk include Peace silk, Art silk, and spider silk.
- The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) suggests that GOTS-certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% TENCEL's lyocell and modal fibres, for example, should be considered as options for environmental sustainability. The company is committed to sustainability and provides extensive transparency regarding its sourcing and manufacturing procedures.
- Some bamboos and hemps may be relatively sustainable if they are grown in a responsible and sustainable manner and use closed loop systems, manufacturing chemicals produced from organic sources, and similarly more natural/organic and eco-friendly techniques and chemicals after growth.
- Origins and Applications of Silk The initial phase in sericulture, often known as silk manufacturing, is the cultivation of silkworms (Bombyx mori).
- However, because the silk strands are damaged during the silkworms' emergence from the cocoon, silkworms are only kept alive in factories producing silk until the cocoon is complete.
- It takes the filament of roughly 2,600 silkworms to make one pound of silk fabric.
- The Sustainable Apparel Coalition's Higg Index also finds that silk is worse for the environment than man-made fibres.
- Silk manufacture requires a lot of time, money, and other resources.
- Hot air and hot water are utilised in the gathering of cocoons in silk farms to maintain the ideal temperature for the silkworms.
- The production of silk also uses a lot of water, which is a second drawback.
- Growing mulberry trees in locations where clean water is rare can impose a burden on local supplies because the tree requires a lot of water. However, a lot of water is also required for silk production.