Curiously, the most esteemed and luxurious material of the past several millennia is one created by caterpillars. It is the fate of these caterpillars, or silkworms, that has animal rights organizations concerned. Many thousands of silkworms are killed in the processing of just one pound of silk; if any two or four-legged creature were involved this would be considered outright cruelty.
Somehow the situation is less clear when it involves the lowly worm – albeit cute worms that eventually become moths and fly freely. Becoming more curious about the origins of your silk garments can empower you to choose designers who walk a sustainable path on the silk road of fashion.
Though access and products are very limited, there are growing options. “Peace silk” or “vegetarian silk” is produced with a more humane approach to harvesting the silk strands; you should buy it when it’s available (unfortunately, usually it’s just not). In this style of production, moths are often allowed to mature and emerge unscathed from the cocoons, which are then salvaged and spun, rather than discarded. (To the discerning fashionista, the so-called vegetarian silk does have a slight discoloration and rougher touch than other varieties.)
Another option is wild silk – which is silk harvested from cocoons in the wild where the silkworms and subsequent moths are allowed to live free lives in their natural habitat. The silk is simply harvested from abandoned or damaged cocoons. Manufacturers cannot always use wild silk because it contains a different protein sequence making it harder to dye.
The silk of your garment may have come from a small supplier or an enormous corporate silk plant. Silk from a small village vs. an enormous corporate plant will generally contain fewer chemical additives (used to add extra luster). Buy from reputable companies that support fair trade artisans and you’re more likely to get the better kind of silk.
Organic and sustainability standards are still in the development phase for silks. The cruelty issue is largely separate from the “organic” issue, since silk can be produced with no pesticides or chemical additives, but still be processed in a way that kills the pupae before they become moths. The Ahimsa Silk company is one at the forefront of the peace silk movements, providing detailed documentation of its manufacturing processes.
The entire debate over the situation of sustainable silk helps us to recognize that “organic”, “sustainable” and “ethical” are three separate code-words, each with their own complex set of guidelines.
The word ahimsa (non-violence) embodies the core of sustainability practices can be applied when we inspect other animal-based textiles for their ethical practices. Defining sustainable practices for silks is starting to show on the radar of eco-fashion designers and consumers, who are encouraged to ask questions. “What became of the silkworm?” is increasingly a question on the list.
Image: Jason Gulledge