Silk: just how green is it?

Photo: organic silk lingerie at keetsa.com

By Brit

Silk is one of the most unique, and one of the oldest fabrics in the world.

Much of the silk produced today is made from the cocoons spun by the larvae of the Bombyx mori moth, the mulberry silkworm. When a silkworm hatches from it’s egg, it ravenously consumes fresh mulberry leaves for just over a month, growing from a tiny speck to a fat caterpillar. The silkworm then begins spinning a cocoon of silk filament. In 2-3 days the silkworm can spin a continuous thread up to one mile long around itself, at which point it plans to begin it’s metamorphosis into a moth.

The silk producers have other ideas: they boil the silkworms in water, and the cocoons are unreeled onto spinning wheels which twist several filaments together to make fibres. These fibres are then woven into silk fabric.

This, clearly, is not a happy ending for the silkworm, and that’s just one of many issues with wearing silk.

One mile of filament sounds like a lot, but it takes thousands of silkworms, and many pounds of mulberry leaves to make a dress. 1 acre of mulberry trees produces over 11 tons of leaves, which will feed 240 lbs of silkworms and their cocoons, and will yield just 37 lbs of raw silk.

Like other commercial crops, the mulberry trees occupy land, consume water, and require “a plentiful supply of fertilizers” to produce a high yield of leaves. And growing a plant that bugs love to eat means controlling the bugs that you don’t want to eat it. Mulberry trees are sprayed with pesticides to kill the many other insects who also think that they are tasty.

Chemicals can also be used on the silkworms to increase the amount of silk produced. Methoprene is an insecticide and hormone disrupter which may be applied to silkworms to slow their growth rate and extend the time they spin silk.

Once a luxury fabric reserved for Chinese empresses and emperors, today silk is an mass-production industry with intense pressure on prices. While high-quality, handmade silks are still used for gowns and high-end designer clothing, most silk manufacture is a maximum-output-for-minimum-input business. Most silk production takes place in China, and a significant amount in India; neither country is known for workers rights. When Forever 21 can turn out pure silk dresses for under $30, labor concerns come to mind for the people working in the silk factories.

As well as labor concerns, health issues also afflict silk workers. Silk workers who process raw silk often suffer from asthma and respiratory diseases caused by a fine dust from the gum that binds the strands secreted by the silkworm, and a host of unpleasant skin problems.

So what’s the alternative?

Organic Silk

A lot of garments are sold as being made from “organic silk”. But currently, there is no formal standard in the US or anywhere else for organic silk. Moves have been made towards a standard so organically produced garments can be labelled as such. There’s a precedent in organic standards for raising crops, and for raising animals, so presumably organic silk would involve growing the mulberry trees organically, without chemicals, and raising the silkworms humanely and without hormones. But as there is no standard, the term “organic silk” presently doesn’t mean anything.

Peace Silk

Mahatma Ghandi criticized the wearing of silk for the killing of silkworms. Some silk producers allow the silkworms to hatch into moths from their cocoons, then spin silk from the cocoons in a way similar to spinning wool. As the moths hatch, they chew a hole through the cocoons which makes reeling the silk in a continuous strand impossible. Peace silk is not as strong as conventional silk, but has a softer texture. One caveat: commercial silkworms have been selectively bred to make silk, and only make silk. All a Bombyx mori moth can do is mate, and die. They have vestigial wings, they can’t eat, and only live for a few hours after hatching. There’s no flying wild and free.

Wild Silk

Wild silk is more in line with animal rights. It is considered vegetarian, and is debatably vegan. Other species of wild moths spin silk cocoons, and once the moth has hatched, the cocoons are collected to make silk. The moth lives it’s natural life with no human interference – it has no need for the cocoon once hatched. Wild silk’s color, texture and lustre varies greatly with the species of moth, the leaves eaten, and the spinning and weaving methods used.

Most wild silk is produced in by small companies, co-operatives or individuals, and companies like Indigo Handloom integrate fair trade, fair wages and refusal to buy products created by child labor. With a similar philosophy, Amana, a British company, makes printed dresses and camisoles from wild silk which sell out infuriatingly fast; and Norwegian company Fin designs sleek, uptown garments which will keep their appeal for enough seasons to justify the higher price.

Recycled and Vintage Silk

A vintage silk dress, if it’s free from rot and stains (which sadly never come out) is a great investment. Silk, when cared for, can last for thousands of years – silk textiles over 4000 years old have been found in Chinese tombs.

Vintage silks lend themselves perfectly to recycling and re-working. These dresses, made from 1950s silk parachutes, seem positively youthful! And a search of the treasure trove of talent that is Etsy throws up many beautiful and ingenious ways to recycle silk into dresses, pillows, purses and accessories, like these slip dresses which I covet to wear to a summer picnic. And perhaps karma will stop the bugs – the silkworm’s distant relations – from biting me?

In sum, on the plus side, silk is durable (not to mention beautiful), lasting a really long time (up to thousands of years if preserved well!) and yet the resources needed to make silk are significant: from the water and pesticides to maintain mulberry trees, to the killing of silkworms to get the silk – all combined are a high cost. Organic silk does provide one alternative, but since that process is not yet certifiable, there are no guarantees that the process is pesticide-free, humane or resource conscious. Recycling old silks seems like a great alternative. Since the fabrics rarely degrade, it makes perfect sense to re-use and re-style.

Tell us what you think… What is your take on silk? Do you wear it and do you think it can be green? greencottonblog@gmail.com

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10 Comments

  1. Erin said,

    May 21, 2008 at 2:59 am

    I loooove silk, but I’d definitely go vintage for it to be considered green. Since you brought up the vegan issue (love it), even wild silk is not technically vegan, since it is an animal product. But even hardcore vegans like Alicia Silverstone still wear vintage since no animals were recently harmed, at least… that’s what one of her wardrobe stylists said: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A07EFD61030F93AA2575BC0A9659C8B63

    Hmmm… more food for thought!

  2. May 21, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    well done

  3. Diana said,

    May 21, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Hi there! Found your site while searching for information on Stonyfield Farms. This is great work you’re doing here. I linked to your site on my blog, which I write for Rider University. There are weekly comics, eco-facts, university updates, and links to green things I think are great. Check us out and add us to your blogroll if you like it!
    http://paperwaste.wordpress.com/

    Best wishes!
    Diana

  4. syansen said,

    May 21, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks, Diana. I just checked out your site as well – keep up the great work! I agree about Stoneyfield – terrific company. I eat their yogurt every day. Stay in touch! Shana

  5. shoji said,

    May 23, 2008 at 3:05 am

    Great overview on silk-worm farming practices; a topic I need to investigate further. Similar to other [conventional] agriculture practices, human beings have transformed a cycle/balance into a linear model useful for a singular objective (farming silk).

    I wonder how a “Polyface Farms” approach to silk-worm cultivation would operate?


    Though PETA would boil me for it, I’m neutral on raising and killing the worms for silk– I think of silk worms in this context as “livestock”. (I’m not a vegan, sorry Erin!)

    In this manner, as is the case for other domesticated animals (e.g., dogs, chickens, cattle), silk worms aren’t capable of surviving “wild and free” and are inextricably linked to human beings.

  6. Daniel Z. said,

    May 26, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    Finally, a company who caters to NON silk ties: Jaan J. – The Home of Non Silk Cotton Ties

  7. May 29, 2008 at 9:40 pm

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  8. April 23, 2011 at 3:06 am

    [...] and I love the way each item feel they’re extremely soft and indeed colorful. Also many contain organic silks/cotton, and fabrics made from recycled materials, it’s such a chic way to look [...]

  9. April 28, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    [...] and I love the way each item feel they’re extremely soft and indeed colorful. Also many contain organic silks/cotton, and fabrics made from recycled materials, it’s such a chic way to look [...]

  10. April 28, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    [...] and I love the way each item feel they’re extremely soft and indeed colorful. Also many contain organic silks/cotton, and fabrics made from recycled materials, it’s such a chic way to look [...]


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