It’s soft, shiny, elegant – silk. When we think of silk we think of beautiful gowns and chic bed sheets, luxury so to speak. It makes us feel beautiful and comfortable. With a big online market place like ASOS banning silk products from their website the questions arise, where does silk come from and how is it made?
What exactly is silk?
Generally speaking, silk is hypoallergenic and temperature regulating natural protein fibre. When you think of protein your mind may jump to eggs or meat, animal products so to say. And guess what, you aren’t wrong! That is exactly what silk is. Silk is produced by moth larvaes. To be precise, the cocoon the tiny larvaes carefully create with their spit for a month is the raw material for silk. Once ready to get sourced the silk producers boil the cocoons to kill the larvaes and reel the thread without it getting broken up by the silkworms.
The total world production of silk is around 130.000 tons with China producing over 80% of the fiber followed by India, Japan, Thailand and a few more. The biggest non-Asian producer is Brazil with the USA being the biggest importer. However, silk makes up only 0.1% of the global fiber production. Still, it is estimated that billions of silkworms die every year for the production of silk. You heard right, billions!
How did silk production start in the first place?
A long time ago would be an understatement. The history of silk actually dates back to 2640 BC in China. According to an old Chinese legend Xi Ling Shi, who was the teenage wife of an emperor, accidentally realized how to make silk after a mulberry silkworm cocoon fell into her tea while she was sitting in her garden underneath mulberry tees. She watched the cocoon dissolve until a long translucent thread was left and decided to look into it. It is said that she studied it and created the science behind silk production, now known as sericulture.
So, we can thank the young Empress for the luxurious fibre, or maybe even the little cocoon that accidentally fell into her tea.
Silk was considered a treasure back then and even got smuggled as the production behind silk was kept a secret. This changed around AD 300 when a Chinese princess promised to an Indian man secretly brought a cocoon to India as she feared she wouldn’t be able to wear any more silk in her new home. Because of that and Chinese immigrants revealing the secrets behind sericulture it had spread to not only India, but also Korea, Japan and Persia making silk production a part of the history and culture of those countries and empires as well.
So how does silk get sourced nowadays?
There is no nice way to say this: silkworms have to die in the process of making silk. Plus, it is not just that, it takes around 6.600 silkworms to make just 1 kilogram of silk. That’s a whole lot of silkworms, right?
We know that the issue of silkworms dying in the production process is a controversial topic. While generally, worms can produce endorphins and therefore respond to pain, silkworms are not actual worms. There is no evidence of silkworms feeling pain in ways we do, however, it’s important to note that we just don’t know yet how pain is being experienced by a silkworm’s nervous system. Put simply, there hasn’t been done enough research on the topic yet. So, we should be wary when making a judgement on the insects’ pain and consciousness.
PETA even talks about abuse when it comes to the production facilities in India, saying that even silkworms that get to mature into moths instead await death shortly after. Female moths lay eggs and get crushed after to then get checked for diseases. If a disease is found the eggs are destroyed. Male moths are discarded after the mating process.
While it is said that the silk production has a quite low water footprint and is biodegradable, sustainability is still an issue. In order to cultivate enough mulberry trees, which are the main and often only food source of silkworms, pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used. However, some argue that mulberry trees reduce salinity and help counter erosion through wind and water.
What about the people?
Unfortunately, not only animals are being harmed in the process of making silk. The silk industry in India has been especially known for child labour in the past. A lot of the women working at silk factories bring their children to work once they’re old enough as that is how they started working in those factories in the past.
New reports found that major manufacturing countries including China and India have not improved in Verisk Maplecroft’s – a risk consultancy – annual Child Labour Index in the past few years. As consumers, we should keep the working conditions in the countries of silk production in mind when purchasing conventional silk.
What alternatives are there to conventional silk?
In the past decades alternatives to conventional silk have emerged to specifically counter the violent production of the fibre and better the working and environmental conditions. There are three alternative forms of silk: Organic, Fair Trade and Ahimsa/Peace silk.
Organic silk is usually processed and produced similarly to conventional silk. The main difference, though, is that less chemicals and chemical dyes are being used during the production. Sometimes an additional difference might be that the silkworms can continue their lifecycle and die naturally. However, there are no general standards concerning organic silk, meaning that the term has no single meaning. Sometimes the term organic only refers to the mulberry tree leaves being organic, the use of natural dyes and a more sustainable approach when it comes to composting.
Fair Trade silk may sound like the silkworms get treated in a fair way, however, the fair trade stamp is only given to suppliers, manufacturers and brands who treat the workers fairly. The mulberry silkworms still die during the process of sourcing the silk threat.
This is where so called peace silk comes into play. Peace silk is a type of silk that does not include the death of the silkworms while sourcing and producing the fibre. It was first introduced by Kusuma Rajaiah who wanted to create a non-violent silk influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy. The moth gets to hatch out of its cocoon and is being kept alive after. Due to this method damaging the cocoon the silk fibres have to be spun instead of being reeled l resulting in a softer silk fabric. Therefore, the production of peace silk – also called ahimsa silk – is more labour intensive Due to a higher labour intensity and a longer production process peace silk is often way more expensive.
So should we still buy silk?
It has become clear that silk can often not be considered cruelty free and particular standards largely missing. At the end of the day, animals are being exploited and often humans, too. While silk is a beautiful fibre creating a sense of luxury and comfort for us, we should not forget the discomfort of others. That does not mean that we have to stop buying silk completely – we just need to be conscious when we do! We advise to look for GOTS certificates or other official certificates to ensure that the animals and workers that are involved in the production of your silk pieces are treated in a fair way. We have said this before and will continue to do so but balance is the first step. Be conscious when you buy silk. Make sure that if you do purchase a silk piece it is something that will bring you joy for a really long time.