While silk is so expensive to manufacture and requires delicate handling, it’s still one of the most used fibers in clothing, furniture, paper production, and even some kinds of soap. With its products invading the market, people have come to question the ethical issues surrounding its manufacturing process.
Many believe it’s not vegan because it involves caterpillars’ exploitation. Others say it’s okay if the worms are left to live naturally while silk is taken as a by-product. Then comes a third party claiming that insects and worms are incapable of feeling pain, so we’re not doing them any harm. Which side is right?
We’re here to explain the entire journey of silk to your closet. Read on to get the big picture and decide for yourself.
Where Does Silk Come from?
Silk is the first “made in China” product ever to exist. Interesting, right?
These magnificent threads that we use in our fancy dresses and beddings come from the mulberry silkworm, scientifically known as bombyx mori.
The cycle starts when a female silkworm lays around 300 eggs on a mulberry tree leaf. After 10 days, each egg hatches and produces a larva (caterpillar). Then, in a period of 30 days, it grows into a long and sloppy pupa.
Now, this weak pupa isn’t ready yet to face the world, so it spins itself in a long and continuous thread made from its saliva until it’s completely covered. This cover is called a cocoon, and it helps shelter the worm from the harsh weather and undesirable conditions until it matures.
You’ve guessed right, this cocoon is the silk we use, but the story doesn’t end here.
When the time comes, and the pupa successfully converts into a moth, it secretes a fluid that burns a hole into the cocoon and comes out, leaving the silk behind.
Why Isn’t Silk Vegan?
Naturally, the cocoon is what the industry is after, but the damaged ones aren’t their idea of high-quality silk, so they use aggressive and inhumane methods to extract these threads in one piece.
In factories, the process doesn’t go as naturally as we mentioned before. Silkworms are bred to mate in industrial farms, and after the eggs are laid, they’re kept in fridges and frozen to prevent them from hatching. Then they’re brought out at a time when manufacturers think they are ready to begin production.
Before the worm gets the chance to bite into the cocoon, producers perform stifling and reeling. The former is simply the process of killing the worms alive before they ruin the silk. It’s done by boiling, steaming, piercing with long needles, or exposure to poisonous gases.
The most economical and widely-used method is boiling. Workers gather the cocoons with the living organisms inside them and dip them in boiling water for 8 to 10 days. The worms are killed, and the outer shells start loosening, making the threads easier to unravel.
The second process is done to collect what they’ve killed the creatures for, reeling. They remove the threads from cocoons by creating an end to the filament and passing it through eyelets and guides to be wound into one long thread of raw silk.
Then what about the dead cocoons? Well, some countries use them in their dishes, and others sell them as animal food. So, if the first part of this worm exploitation didn’t convince you that wearing silk is against veganism, we hope this part made it more evident.
Studies say that it takes around 2500 to 3000 silkworms to produce one pound of silk. With the mass-production of this fabric, billions or even trillions of worms are abused and boiled to death yearly for manufacturers to stack their pockets with money and sell us upper-class material.
Do Silkworms Feel Pain?
Many people argue that silkworms don’t feel pain, so they don’t really suffer in the process. Let’s just say that is true, does it justify the fact that we kill them for an unnecessary and easily-replaceable product?
However, we’re sorry to break your peace of mind and tell you that yes, they have the ability to feel pain. While it’s still not established to our day, many researchers claim that silkworms release endorphins, which are a group of hormones produced by the body to reduce its perception of pain.
If they react, that means they can feel the action. But even if all that proves to be wrong one day, living creatures don’t deserve to be killed mercilessly just because they don’t feel pain.
What about Peace Silk?
There should be a light at the end of the tunnel, right? That’s what Peace silk represents, or Ahimsa silk, as commonly called.
In 1990, Kusuma Rajaiah, a government officer in India, invented Ahimsa silk, which is entirely cruelty-free. It’s produced from the discarded cocoons left by the mature butterflies.
Objectively, it spares silkworms all the agony, as they’re left to grow peacefully and leave their shelters without harm.
However, economic-wise, this process is time- and cash-consuming. While it takes less than a day to kill the cocoons in the inhumane procedure, producing peace silk requires 10 more days, which is the time taken by the larvae to mature and fly away on their own.
On top of that, the total yield produced by the same number of cocoons in the animal-friendly process is six times less than that generated in the conventional procedure.
That’s because the damaged ones produce fewer filaments and require treatment and manual weaving. Hence, it costs double the price of conventional silk.
Although it’s not mass-produced yet, Ashima silk is gaining popularity among designers, actors, and models, and it’s expected that it’ll replace the conventional silk completely in just a few years.
Nevertheless, with everything good comes something bad. Lately, many manufacturers have been misleading the public to believe that what they sell is peace silk while it’s actually produced with the same brutal methods.
The problem is there will be no way to guarantee that the sold silk is cruelty-free until they assign some sort of supervision on the industry.
What Should We Do?
Here comes the real question. We can understand that silk is an essential piece in some people’s closets, but is it worth all this torture? The only way we can see wearing silk now is like walking on thousands of corpses with utter indifference.
It’s not vegan to wear silk, but are there any alternatives? Yes!
Rayon, also known as viscose, is a plant-based and animal-friendly replacement for silk. It’s human-made to imitate the feeling of silk, so it makes a good alternative. Other fabrics like polyester, silk-cotton, and nylon are also available and less expensive.
Finally, make sure that whatever product you’re buying is free from silk. Like clothing tags, pay attention to the ingredients of soap, skin, and hair-care products, as they may contain the so-named fabric in the form of hydrolyzed silk. This way, you won’t participate in the crimes held against these innocent creatures.