Everything you need to know about silk production, peace silk, and other silk options.
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Silk is a luxurious fabric. It’s used in a variety of applications, but you’ve probably seen it in cozy pajamas, sheets, and shirts most often. The smooth, sleek texture is pretty unique amongst other fabrics. Even alternatives to silk like TENCEL are described as “silky” because silk’s texture is so singular.
Silk also happens to be a multi-billion dollar industry, making it a clear staple within the fashion world. But silk also has its fair share of environmental and labor rights issues. On the other hand, it’s an extremely culturally relevant and financially important fiber. There are more sustainable silks on the market, but the word isn’t out on them either. It’s a complicated topic, but that’s why I’d like to help demystify silk and its sustainable alternative, Peace Silk, so we can all buy better.
What is silk?
Silk comes from the cocoons of silkworms. Some silk can be found in the wild, but much of it is farmed. Most farmed silk comes from the Bombyx Mori, a domesticated silkworm that has adapted to rely on human interaction after generations of use in silk harvesting.
To harvest silk producers must have access to large amounts of eggs laid by female silk moths. Once these eggs are laid, they can grow into silkworm caterpillars which will form their cocoon after roughly 35 days. It’s estimated that silk producers need upwards of 3,000 cocoons to make just one yard of silk, which they do by reeling the filaments of the cocoon together and removing any impurities.
As you can imagine, harvesting silk is time and labor-intensive. So why do people love silk so much? Silk is sleek, smooth, and lightweight. Designers can use silk to create a variety of silhouettes that not only look great to the eye but feel great to wear. If you’ve ever worn something made of silk, you know what I’m talking about.
Additionally, silk is rooted in a deep cultural history. The oldest known silk dates back to 8,500+ years ago in the Henan Province of China. While it’s hard to know exactly how silk was used back then, research suggests that it may have even been used in similar applications to modern silk.
Silk eventually gained a reputation as a luxurious fabric that never faded. Over time, silk also garnered a great deal of importance in the economies of China and India. As mentioned above, silk is a multi-billion dollar industry. But silk can play an important part in local communities as well. A case study by Eswarappa Kasi of the National Institute of Rural Development in India concludes that the silk industry can positively affect the socioeconomic development of communities.
Additionally, silk is often viewed as a low or zero-waste fiber. The food used to feed the silkworms–mulberry wood–can be used as a natural dye; the pupae can be (and are) eaten as a snack in many cultures; and the silk itself (if untreated) is biodegradable. The bottom line is that silk production has more to offer than just a luxurious fabric.
Problems with conventional silk
While silk certainly has its benefits, the silk industry has a bad reputation within the conscious consumer world. Mainly, consumers take issue with the way silk is harvested from an animal rights perspective. There are also additional environmental and labor rights concerns that we should try to be aware of when buying our garments.
From an animal rights perspective, the act of harvesting any product from an animal can be seen as problematic, though that topic is hotly debated. But for those of us who believe in safely and ethically using animal products, there can still be issues with silk harvesting. The main concern is that many conventional silk producers boil or bake cocoons with silkworms in them to harvest their silk. They do this so that the silkworms can’t eat their way out of their cocoons and limit the amount of usable filament.
Strict vegans would find an obvious problem with the way silk is harvested because it harms the insects involved. The subject of pain is a complicated topic in the animal rights world, specifically when it comes to insects. In a blog run by the Entomological Society of Canada, Dr. Shelley Adamo writes, “If insects have any type of subjective experience of pain, it is likely to be something that will be very different from our pain experience.” She then goes on to say, however, “a case can be made that all animals deserve our respect, regardless of their ability to feel pain.” So, this may be a personal gray area for your conscious consumption.
However, conventional silk also poses certain environmental concerns. A life cycle assessment by researchers at Oxford showed that Indian silk has a high environmental impact in a variety of areas, ranging from water and energy usage to greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, some silk is exposed to environmental toxins during production. While some of these issues are fixable, others come with the territory of harvesting from such a large amount of silkworms.
We should also take a look at the way workers within the silk industry are treated. Back in 2003, Human Rights Watch reported that an estimated 350,000 child laborers were involved in the silk industry working 12+ hour days. (I should note that this is the most accurate and recent data out there). Additionally, there’s a high amount of occupational hazards involved in silk production ranging from eye irritation to respiratory problems. All in all, silk poses a lot of large ethical questions.
How is peace silk better?
So, silk has a lot of baggage. But does it have to be this way? As with many conventional fabrics, there has been innovation in the world of silk. The most common alternative is peace silk, also called ahimsa silk or non-violent silk. This type of silk claims to offer a sustainable, ethical alternative to conventional silk. But is it all that it seems? Let’s take a look.
What makes peace silk different from conventional silk is the way it’s harvested. Rather than killing silkworms in their cocoons, peace silk producers let their silkworms go through their life cycle uninterrupted. These silkworms eventually emerge from their cocoons on their own, and the leftover cocoons are harvested without causing any harm to the insects themselves. Once the silk is harvested, it must be woven together by hand in the time-consuming process involved in making conventional silk.
Some types of peace silk also use the silk from eri caterpillars, which are a different species altogether. Their cocoons are open-ended, which means that they can easily exit them without having to damage the cocoon. While eri silk is a great candidate for peace silk, it is thought of as a lesser quality silk.
Peace silk on the whole avoids the issue of harming insects while being harvested. However, peace silk is not well-regulated. This means that it’s hard to know how adult moths are being treated after they’ve emerged from their cocoons and the silk has been harvested from their cocoons. This also means that it’s hard to know how peace silk manufacturers avoid the other ethical and environmental concerns related to conventional silk production.
There is actually a manufacturer of non-violent silk named Peace Silk. In fact, it’s probably the most well-known manufacturer of peace silk. This is confusing, but you’ll really want to keep an eye out for the difference in the brand name versus the general product.
The difference between Peace Silk and peace silk matters because the brand is quite well-regulated. Its products have all of the great features of other non-violent silks, but they’re also GOTS-certified organic. This means that they have met strict environmental and ethical standards from harvesting to processing.
Peace Silk also boasts other great features from a consumer perspective. It’s less absorbent than other fabrics, while still just as luxe and smooth as any other silk. It’s also hypoallergenic and non-toxic, if those are things that matter to you. Of course this information generally comes straight from the brand, the fact that it has three certifications suggest that the claims about it being non-toxic and sustainably and ethically made are trustworthy.
Consciously Shopping for Silk
Silk is a controversial topic amongst conscious consumers. A lack of widespread regulation makes buying silk even more complicated. But the fact remains that silk is a versatile fabric that you might want to wear. So if you’re not sure about what silk option to buy, I’d like to offer a few tips to help you in your search process.
- Buy Peace Silk (the brand): Like I mentioned above, Peace Silk (the brand) is a great option if you’re interested in buying silk. It might not be for you, but it could be worth a try!
- Keep an eye out for certified organic silk: Whether this is labeled as peace silk or not, buying certified organic products ensures that what you’re buying was made ethically and sustainably. Your best bet is to look out for a GOTS certification, though there are others out there. If you need a refresher on what to look out for when shopping organic, I’ve written a guide to organic cotton that breaks down organic labels.
- Buy vintage or recycled/upcycled silk: Vintage garments and recycled, upcycled, and deadstock fabrics are always great sustainable options. These alternatives give a new life to something that might otherwise be discarded. Whether these silks and silk garments were originally produced sustainably or ethically or not, they’re given the chance to last longer and avoid the landfill when they’re recycled or upcycled, or sold at a vintage or consignment shop.
- Shop locally-made silks: If you want to support local workers, you can do so by buying from local silk producers. A great way to do this is by shopping through social enterprises that aim to empower communities through ethical business practices, steady work opportunities, and support for communities in need. Why not check out a social enterprise like the House of Wandering Silk?