When we think of silk, we generally think of super lustrous fabrics that drape with elegance like no other. From romantic slip dresses to night masks, silk has become a staple for anyone who enjoys fashion that gives off an air of luxury.
Many concern themselves with the ethics of silk as to produce commercial silk, silkworms have to be boiled alive before metamorphosis is complete. However, the sustainability of silk is something that is less frequently discussed.
Is silk sustainable? As a fabric in general, both contemporary silk and peace silk are considered to be sustainable textiles as they have a low water footprint and produce little waste. In fact silk, as a natural fibre, is biodegradable and decomposes within just a couple of years. Furthermore, silk does not emit toxins when it does biodegrade in contrast to its synthetic counterparts. Despite these positive credentials, there is much disparity between the benevolence of silk production methods which will be detailed below.
Types of Silk:
Commercial Silk | First, we will start with the most common silk on the market: commercial silk. Commercial silk here refers to silk produced using the conventional method where the intact cocoons' of silkworms are boiled. In this method, the silkworm is also boiled alive so that the silk fibres do not break when the moth emerges from the cocoon once metamorphosis is complete. However, this commonly used process means that the silkworm dies in the process. While commercial silk is not unsustainable, there are other options out there which are both cruelty-free and more sustainable!
Hemp Silk | Hemp silk is a blend of silk and the highly-sustainable fibre hemp. Hemp is a crop which can grow without the need for harmful herbicides and pesticides. Furthermore, hemp is an ideal rotation crop as it helps retain topsoil and replenishes soil quality due to the compositing of its leaves. Hemp also does not require water irrigation and can primarily grow from rainwater.
Blending hemp with silk gives the fabric added strength and durability and reduces the number of silkworms being harmed in the production process. The truly cruelty-free option would be a hemp peace silk (the description of "peace" silk can be found below). However, this variant may be hard to find as hemp silk is not a commonly used fabric to begin with.
Lotus Silk | Lotus silk is made from the fibres in the stem of the Lotus flower. According to Common Objective "this fabric is labour intensive to produce but has many of the desirable qualities inherent to silk". Lotus silk is lightweight and breathable and in comparison to its unprocessed counterparts Lotus silk is almost wrinkle-free. Textiles producer, Samatoa Textiles, support women’s empowerment in Cambodia by providing long-lasting employment to vulnerable women in the Lotus Silk sector.
Mulberry Silk | Mulberry silk is arguably the highest quality silk available for purchase. The unique thing about Mulberry silk that positions it above other silks is how it is produced. Mulberry silk has its origins in China, where local farmers grow Mulberry trees and harvest the leaves for silkworms to feed on. As the silkworms of the Bombyx mori moth are only fed Mulberry leaves, the result is that the silk is some of the finest quality available. Due to its pure white colour made up of long individual fibres, Mulberry silk is considered to be more refined than other silks. Mulberry silk is not necessarily more ethical or more sustainable than other silks. However, when teamed with other methods such as Ashima or Organic processes, Mulberry silk can be highly ethical or sustainable.
Orange Fiber Silk | Orange Fiber is the company behind this exciting citrus silk, which is formed from a silk-like cellulose yarn that can be blended with other materials. When used in its purest form, the resulting 100% citrus textile exhibits a soft and silky feel, which is lightweight and can be opaque or shiny according to desired preferences. The increase in food processing over the past 50 years has generated an enormous amount of non-edible byproducts and a discarding of our natural resources. Orange Fiber helps tackle this problem by turning waste into a new innovative textile.
Citrus Silk by Orange Fiber
Organic Silk | Organic silk is created without the use of toxic chemicals in the growing and production of the fabric. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is recognised as the world's leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibres.
Peace Silk | Peace silk (also known as Ahimsa silk, which is a Sanskrit word meaning "non-violence" or "do no harm") allows for the completion of the metamorphosis. As such, the silkworm can transform into a month and emerge from its cocoon unscathed. The most significant controversy around peace silk is that of whether it can ever mimic the luxurious texture of commercial silk. The consensus is that Ahimsa/Peace silk is less lustrous than its commercial counterpart, due to the former's shorter strands. These shorter strands are woven back together and the resulting joined threads have little nubs where each strand meets. This type of silk is called "slubby", which may not sound so sexy, but produces a highly valued quality that can still be incredibly soft and maintain a stunning drape.
Raw silk | Raw silk as the name suggests is a type of silk which is not chemically processed or treated with heavy metals. On the contrary, silks that boast of "wrinkle-free" and "stain-resistant" properties are typically treated with environmentally harmful substances. For instance, to achieve wrinkle-free properties, silk undergoes what is known as durable press finishing using substances such as N-Methylol agents or N-Methyl amides because of their efficiency and low price. By opting for qualities such as "100% naturally dyed", "undyed" or "unbleached" you will be choosing a more sustainable option.
Soy Silk | Soy silk mad by Swicofil has a soft, smooth and light texture. It has cashmere feel, but is smoother than cashmere. According to Swicofil "it is as comfortable as a second human skin". There are potential environmental issues in both the growing of the soy and in the chemically processing the fibre, which need to be further assessed. While soy silk is created from soybean waste left over from the production of soy for food consumption, to turn the actual soy proteins into fabric, the soy needs to be chemically processed.
Soy Silk Fibre
Spider Web Silk | Spider-Web silk? Well, technically, this silk is inspired by spiders webs not actually made from them. Spider web inspired silk which is developed by Bolt Threads and goes under the brand name Microsilk is based on the silk proteins spun by spiders to determine what gives them their incredible properties such as high tensile strength, elasticity, durability, and softness. Bolt Threads develops proteins inspired by these natural silks by using bioengineering to put genes into yeast. Microsilk can be produced with less environmental impact than traditional textile manufacturing, with the potential to biodegrade at the end of its life. This is an exciting innovation, which I hope to see come into more wide-spread usage in garment production.
Wild Silk | An even more ethical option to peace silk is wild silk. In contrast to farmed silkworms, where the farm determines the food supply for hatchlings, wild silkworm can feed themselves. These wild silkworms also tend to produce a higher quality of silk than domesticated silkworms, as a result of their intuitive diet. However, wild silk cocoons may still be harvested before the silkworm has emerged. As a result, wild silk can only be considered to be cruelty-free if it has been harvested after the silkworm has emerged from its cocoon. In this case, the silk will be labelled explicitly as wild peace silk. If your primary concern is the welfare of silkworms, wild peace silk is your go-to option.
Bolt Threads | Microsilk
Common Objective | Fabric Swatch: Sourcing Sustainable Silk
Ecosophy | Wild Silk
Fibre2Fashion | Ahimsa Silk - A Sustainable and Non-Violent Alternative
Greenopedia | Wild Peace Silk
Orange Fiber | Fabrics
Samatoa Lotus Flower | A Cambodian Social Business
Sustainable Textile Supply Chain | Peace Silk
Tortoise + Lady Grey | The Benefits and Environmental Impacts of Soysilk
Love and solidarity,