I’ve been wondering about silk for a little while. I’ve got a really nice 100% silk, lined bomber jacket from a friend’s mum and I can feel its amazing natural qualities, but I realised I wasn’t sure about whether its production was sustainable or ethical…
Silk as a Material
Silk is a natural protein fibre, produced out two saliva glands in the mouth of the larvae of certain specific insects, like caterpillars or moth but also spiders, bees and ants. Commercial silk is made almost exclusively from silkworms, essentially making materials from worm spit.
Silk was first cultivated in China 5,000 years ago. When a worm makes its transition into a moth, it weaves itself a cocoon of pure silk from a protein secretion called fibroin which becomes lustrous silk when it makes contact with air. A silk worm sways its head from side to side in a figure of eight to weave its cocoon made of up to 1,000 metres of silk.
The cocoons can be unravelled and woven into thread it makes a crazy fabric of amazing qualities meant for protecting and warming the worm. It absorbs up to a third of its weight in water before feeling wet. It is remarkably breathable keeping living beings warm in the heat, or helping keep it cool. Silk doesn’t create static so doesn’t cling, it is antibacterial and also it is supposed to be unable to irritate even the most sensitive skin.
The trillions of silk worms reared globally feed on mulberry leaves, which are quite resilient and don’t require the use of pesticides or fertilizers to grow. However you need a shed load to feed all the millions of hungry larvae. They eat nearly two hundred times the weight of their silk in leaves. It is also said that the cleaning of silk uses harsh chemicals. But the fabric, essentially made of worm spit, is entirely biodegradable.
The silk industry known as sericulture – provides employment to rural populations, with around one million workers in China and 7.9 million workers in India. A report by Human Rights Watch revealed that around 350,000 children are used as workers especially in India. They are loaned out by their families, often the lowest untouchable caste destined for little else. They are subject to burns from the boiling cocoons and cuts from the strands.
When industrially producing silk nowadays, it is a problem when the larvae chew their way out when they become moths, shortening the strands of silk. So producers either see them off by baking, boiling, freezing or stabbing them with a large pin.
Estimates of silk worms used per kilogram of silk vary, but average around 10,000. Figures on the global production of silk is around 160,000 tonnes. Which means approximately 1.6 trillion worms are killed in the silk trade each year.
This decade, an Indian man supposedly inspired by Ghandi’s non-violence claimed to have founded ‘ahimsa’ (Sanskrit term for non-harming) silk, which doesn’t require the killing of worms in their cocoons. However, this is not really certified, and there are claims of refrigerating the male moths and breeding the females until they’re no long able to reproduce when they are either crushed or released to the jaws of birds or crushed…
Wild silk seems less horrific and is harvested from fields after moths have emerged naturally. This is the most natural way of harvesting silk but the fabric will have a darker and less luminescent appearance so it is in less demand. The colour varies depending on the worm’s diet in the wild.
Regardless of processing, silk only actually represents 0.2 per cent of the global fibre trade. However because it is a premium fabric, it is a multi billion dollar industry all around the world, where the biggest producing countries are China, India, Uzbekistan, Brazil and Thailand. It doesn’t seem to be karmically beneficial to cost trillions of deaths for less than 1 per cent of fabrics we use globally.
Ethical, or not?!
So, to conclude, silk is supposedly quite sustainable though in another it is really not an ethical product. It exploits animals (in their trillions) for a very small and very expensive, albeit quite astounding, but ultimately unnecessarily animal-based commodity.
Silk is being researched by the medial community for repairing bones, and in the military where it is inserted into the genes of goats before getting their silk-rich milk which is intended to be woven into protective bullet vests (as it’s 4 times stronger than the Kevlar - the material which makes up most bullet vests) and human skin (in the hope of replacing our the keratin in our skin with silk).