Silk has always been associated with luxury, opulence, sophistication, and sensuality. That comes as no surprise as this fabric has its roots in Imperial China dating as far back as 2,640 BC, and is believed to have surprising benefits, from relieving menopausal hot flashes (because of the fabric's cooling effect) to preventing fine lines, keeping the skin better hydrated. The details surrounding the fabric production are incredibly delicate and also contribute to its fame: silkworms fed exclusively with mulberry leaves, then carefully dismantled to get the yarn that forms the worm's cocoon, finally woven into the luxurious fabric.
Silk in the Textile Industry
Fashion buyers and designers all over the world are aware of its properties -- not only visual and sensorial ones but practical too, as silk is flame retardant, antibacterial, and biodegradable. Fashion professionals are also aware of the ethical and sustainable issues around it since it's often produced in areas of the world that might lack in social welfare and sustainability: China is the single largest producer, followed by India, Uzbekistan, and Brazil. As we've previously seen in our Disruptive Solutions Series, Profit Funds Global Holding Ltd (PFGHL), based in China, is one of the suppliers who is challenging the textile industry with their high-standards of sustainability and social responsibility.
Commercial silk involves the farming of worms from the bombyx mori species. They feed exclusively on mulberry leaves. In the ethical production of the fabric, the moth is allowed to leave its cocoon before extracting the silk filament. Credits: (right) Bombyx mori (Larve) in Bornholms Sommerfugelpark & Tropeland | Lilly M | CC BY-SA 3.0
According to the International Sericultural Commission (ISC), silk has only a small percentage in the global textile market (around 0.2%), even though it can be part of fabrics such as taffeta, chiffon, and satin, amongst others. Though small, its production is labour intensive and also according to the ISC, employs 1 million people in China, almost 8 million people in India, and 20,000 weaving families in Thailand (where Praewa silk, highly adorned and intricately woven, is part of the Phu Thai tradition in the northeast of the country). Sericulture can give economic support to rural areas in those countries, securing remunerative employment with only a small investment -- hence the importance of transparency in producers when it comes to their supply chain to inform the consumer if those possibilities are actually being met.
Praewa silk is a highly adorned and intricately woven fabric. It's part of the Phu Thai tradition in the northeast of the country, and it's highly sought after as a sign of status. Credits: My Thai Life
Silk: Ethical vs Sustainable Debate
Sustainability is constantly a consumer demand. Being a natural fibre extracted from the worm's cocoon, the fabric is completely biodegradable, making it a good solution for the problem of textile waste. It's considered an eco-friendly production process by the ISC since it increases green cover and helps soil conservation, preventing erosion.
The stages of the metamorphic transformation: from larvae to cocoon (where the silk filament is extracted from), and finally, moth.
Different types of worms that feed on different plants can produce a fabric that is naturally colourful, such as the Tasar (green), Eri (white or red), and Assam (golden yellow); hence diminishing the need for a dyeing process that could be chemically heavy and resource wasteful. It's worth remembering, however, that those types represent only 10% of the overall production -- the rest of the commercial fabric comes exclusively from mulberry crops.
Different types of worms feed on different types of plants, producing a coloured cocoon and, consequently, naturally colourful yarns and fabrics that don't require dyeing -- which might be polluting and toxic. Credits: Fibre2Fabric
There are no doubts that in a transparent process, this is a fabric that is highly sustainable, both socially and environmentally. However, is it ethical?
One of the debates around ethics and silk is that, in order to retrieve a higher-quality thread from the cocoon, the worm must be prevented from damaging it, and its metamorphosis cycle must be stopped before it becomes a moth. One unbroken cocoon is made of a single filament, measuring up to a kilometre in length. Quality wise, the smoothest fabric derives from "reeling" the filament in one unbroken piece. Many companies achieve that by boiling or steaming the cocoons and then discarding the worm or selling them to food companies (in Asia, fried or dried silkworms are a very popular snack). According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), approximately 3,000 worms are killed to make every pound of the fabric, though there is no data as to those worms going to waste or not.
Bombyx mori cocoons aligned in two different types of baskets. Sericulture requires little investment and brings a stable source of income for families based mostly in rural areas. Mulberry is also a sturdy crop and can be grown in land unsuitable for conventional farming.
Another ethical debate includes the genetically reengineering of silkworms to produce a fluorescent fabric that glows in the dark, mixing their DNA with the ones from corals or jellyfish, or creating transgenic worms that produce spider silk or even human collagen.
Ethical Silk: The Alternatives
This highly sustainable fabric is not always ethical when considering animal welfare. PETA considers man-made synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon to be good alternatives for the fabric, but those have their own sustainable debates as well. Fabrics like Lyocell (or Tencel™) are considered a greener option too. That doesn't mean that there is no sericulture considering animal welfare or no option that is both sustainable and ethical.
Peace (Ahimsa) Silk
Peace silk is an ethical alternative to the commercial one: in this process -- invented by Kusuma Rajaiah, in India -- the moths are allowed to leave the cocoon, or it is cut open so they can fly. Credits: [right] Logga Wiggler
Left alone in nature, a worm will transform in its cocoon for around 10 days. Then, the moth will use its acidic urine to cut through the cocoon and fly free. In traditional sericulture, this part is stopped to avoid breakage of the threads. Peace silk, on the other hand, allows the moth to hatch naturally or the cocoon is cut open to let it fly. The technique was created in India in the early 90s by Kusuma Rajaiah, who was asked by the wife of a government official whether silk could be made without deliberately killing the worms. Using his experience in handloom technology, he studied different processes and developed the ahimsa silk, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi (ahimsa meaning the Hindu practice of non-violence). This process is patented and trademarked by Rajaiah, who is officially considered the inventor of the eco-friendly method for manufacturing mulberry silk yarn.
This type can cost twice the price of the regular one since it requires longer production time. Cutting the cocoons open means that the thread is broken and it has to be woven back together before being spun into a yarn -- the discontinuous filaments can create a more textured fabric, that might not have the lustre of commercial silk, but it is just as soft. That sometimes results in quality issues for brands, who might find difficult to source the quantity and quality of peace silk necessary for their production.
From sleepwear to party dresses and casual outfits: the luxurious fabric in its many versions is very versatile, and also has the benefits of being cooling and improving hydration. Above, pieces from Stella McCartney, a designer who has been disrupting the fashion world with her sustainable and ethical efforts that are leading the way to a better future. Credits: Courtesy of Stella McCartney
Natural spider silk is one of the strongest and stretchiest fibres present in nature. Though it can be used in the textile industry, it is difficult to extract and process sufficient amounts for commercial purposes. The largest known piece of cloth made with spider silk was a cape made with more than a million Madagascar Golden Orb spiders that took Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley (a textile artist and a designer-entrepreneur, respectively) eight years to complete. The piece was exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, in 2012. That type of fabric hadn't been woven in more than a century.
The only spider silk piece woven in over 100 years: a cape made with more than a million Madagascar Golden Orb spiders. The idea came from Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley, and the piece took 8 years to complete. Credits: Katy Boo [left] and Ancient Origins [right].
Synthetic Spider Silk: Bolt Threads
Sugar, yeast, and water might not sound like they have anything in common with mulberry leaves and worms, but they do. These are the materials with which synthetic spider silk is made -- no arachnids hurt in the process -- developed by the American biotechnology company Bolt Threads. Founded in 2009, the company started producing Engineered Silk™ proteins in 2015 and started weaving them into yarns in 2016. It was named spider silk since it is the result of a long study on spider webs.
This project is extremely exciting because it combines both sustainable and ethical agendas to deliver a product that has the strength of silk without any damage to animals, and can be used particularly as a performance fabric. The brand already has partnerships with Patagonia and Stella McCartney, who produced a spider silk dress for the exhibition "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" at MoMA in 2017.
Orange Fiber: Vegan Silk From Waste
Adriana Santanocito, a native from Catania, Sicily, was trying to find a way to prevent millions of citrus peel going to waste -- and she ended up with a yarn made from orange rind. Together with university colleague Enrica Arena, she founded Orange Fiber in 2014: the technique involves extracting cellulose from the orange rinds (which was already a piece of knowledge in the industry) and using chemical agents to turn it into a yarn that is silk-like when used in its purest form, but can also be blended with other materials, like cotton and elastane, to create poplin and jersey.
The orange yarn is completely biodegradable, ethical, and sustainable since it uses the by-product of the juice industry (the company reutilises more than 700,000 tons of citrus waste). In 2017, Salvatore Ferragamo used it in a special collection of silk-like scarves and other pieces. The brand also won the Global Change Award, from the H&M Foundation, in 2016.
The debate of a balance between ethics and sustainability is a long one, and we believe in a dialogue within the textile community combined with fashion technology to provide disruptive solutions that have a more positive impact in the textile industry and our planet in general, both socially and environmentally. What kind of silk is used in your company? If you want to discover more ethical and sustainable fabric alternatives to improve your fabric sourcing, join our platform and get connected to suppliers all over the world.