03 Oct

Material Guide: Is Silk Sustainable?

Silk – the material so soft it became an adjective. Not only is silk timelessly elegant, it also has flame retardant and antibacterial properties. So we want to know – just how ethical and sustainable is the fabric of royalty?

What is Silk?

It was Chinese Empress Xi Lingshi who is credited with discovering this illustrious fabric. One fine day in 27th century BCE, the Empress was enjoying a cup of tea beneath the mulberry trees when a cocoon fell into her cup. As the cocoon began to unravel itself, the Empress admired the beauty of the shimmering threads. And so the legend goes that the young royal invented the reel and loom and began to teach the ladies of her court how to weave silk fabric.

Demand for silk established an ancient trade route through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe which became known as the Silk Road. The Chinese Imperialists realised the value of their export and kept the making process secret from the rest of the world. It wasn’t until 550 AD that the silk-making process reached the Roman Empire. The story goes that two sly monks, upon the orders of Roman Emperor Justinian, smuggled silkworm eggs in their walking canes, and hobbled all the way home to Constantinople.

So how did the Empress do it?

Silk is spun from the long threads which make up the inner cocoon of a silkworm. The fibres are in fact saliva, produced by the worm to insulate itself until it is time to transform. The raw silk threads are harvested and then reeled together for commercial use.

When done well, silk manufacturing can be a harmonious and low waste process. Silk worms keep a raw, gluten-free, dairy-free diet which consists entirely of mulberry leaves. The mulberry is a hardy tree, resistant to pollution and easy to cultivate. The tree bark has medicinal properties and the fruit can be used as a natural dye or to fill a pie. The leaves of the mulberry will feed the worms and the worms, in turn, can feed the farmers.

The silkworms are killed during the process of extracting the silk, but the pupae don’t go to waste. They are a rich source of protein, which makes them a popular snack across many Asian countries. The outer-cocoons are also used as fertiliser or to stuff pillows.

Chemicals may be used in the cleaning or degumming of the cocoon, so choose your silks carefully. Use the Good On You app to find the most reliable sources of silk, and look for labels that market undyed, unbleached or 100% naturally dyed silk.

What about the worms?

The bombyx mori (the mulberry silkworm) produces the bulk (around 90%) of commercial silk. Left to its own devices a silkworm moth that is ready to emerge will make a small hole in its cocoon through which to escape. This, however, breaks the long silk strands that make up the inner cocoon. Silk producers usually prefer to boil the cocoon (with the worm inside) so that the long strands remain intact.

Over time the mulberry silkworm has become domesticated. The moths cannot fly and they rely on human assistance to mate, so their ability to survive beyond the cocoon may be limited. Perhaps a snack of fried worm pupae might be considered ethical grub?

It is also possible to find less lethal alternatives to the silk-making process. Ahimsa silk, also known as ‘peace silk’, allows the moth to evacuate the cocoon before it is boiled. Some silks that fall under the Ahimsa umbrella include ‘Eri silk’ and ‘Tussar silk’.

Eri silk uses castor plant-fed domesticated silkworms that aren’t harmed during the production process. Tussar silkworms are truly wild, allowed to leave the cocoon before they are harvested from the forest. This brand of silk is popular in the Indian states of West Bengal and Bihar.

Note that some companies also use ‘wild silkworms’ which means that the worms live in an environment that imitates their natural habitat – essentially they are free range. Wild silkworms produce more durable fabric, and the producers tend to use fewer chemicals, but may not be Ahimsa silks.

What about the people?

The silk industry – also known as sericulture – provides employment to rural populations, with around one million workers in China and 7.9 million workers in India. In some parts of India sericulture has been an important enterprise for developing communities, and particularly for the empowerment of women. However, in 2003, Human Rights Watch reported the abuse of child slaves in the Indian silk industry. The report estimated that some 350,000 children work in the silk industry, “Boiling cocoons, hauling baskets of mulberry leaves, and embroidering saris.”

Silk in the 21st century

Under pressure from consumers and animal welfare groups like PETA, ASOS has recently decided to stop using silk by the end of January 2019. A huge step for the fast growing retailer, ahead of others companies like Zara, H&M and GAP that are only starting to ban mohair.

New technologies are also helping create new and better alternatives to silk. Bolt Threat launched its first commercial spider silk. But the company does not use spider in the process. In fact, the thread is made from yeast, water, and sugar. The raw silk is produced through fermentation, much like brewing beer, except instead of the yeast turning the sugar into alcohol, they turn it into the raw stuff of spider silk. This innovative material is both strong and flexible and could be used in everything from bulletproof vests and biodegradable water bottles to shoes and flexible bridge suspension ropes. The brand has even recently announced a partnership with British ethical designer Stella McCartney and outdoor wear brand Patagonia!

So when it comes to buying silk or its alternatives, use the Good On You ethical shopping app to ensure that you don’t buy into exploitation.

Here are some of our favourite ethical silk brands:

Indie Bride

Rated: Good

Indie Bride designs gorgeous lace dresses to take you through your wedding day and beyond.

The Ethical Silk Company

Rated: Good

The Ethical Silk Company produces scarves, wraps and loungewear that are 100% ethically made from 100% natural, eco-friendly mulberry silk. For the ultimate comfort indulge in a pair of their mulberry silk pyjamas, printed by hand using the traditional craft of blockprinting.

Ayten Gasson

Rated: Good

Brighton-based lingerie shop and luxury handmade label with a firm commitment to producing in the UK and an eye to ethical and sustainable sources. The brand’s designer, Ayten Roberts, is dedicated to supporting as many UK companies as possible, from lace mills to printers, notably by using upcycled vintage Nottingham lace.

Do you have a favourite brand that uses silk? Share with us in the comments below!

Editor's note: this article was updated in October 2018. Painting by Emperor Huizong of Song is public domain. Photo by Demetrius Washington on Unsplash. All other images via brands and Quartzy.

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