Conventional silk always involves some cruelty. However, conscientious consumers should be aware of concerns with “peace silk" as well.
Cruelty to the Silkworm
Conventional silk, as well as some “peace silk,” comes from the bombyx mori caterpillar, or silkworm. This caterpillar does not exist naturally in the wild. Humans have domesticated it for so many centuries that it cannot survive on its own, and requires constant human care.
Most silk on the market is reeled, or made by unwinding the caterpillar’s chrysalis (cocoon). In order to keep a caterpillar from developing into a moth, producers steam, boil or expose the chrysalis to dry heat, killing the caterpillar inside.
Producers do allow some caterpillars to develop into moths for breeding purposes, but due to the severity of their inbreeding, bombyx mori moths are blind, cannot fly and cannot eat. All they can do is mate, and then starve to death.
Cruelty to Humans
The fashion and textile industries are notorious for exploiting workers in non-Western countries with long hours, dangerous working conditions and extremely low wages. Silk that is not made in Europe or not specified as Fair Trade may involve sweatshop labor.
Not All “Peace Silk” Is Created Equal
Ahimsa silk comes from India and is usually made from Eri and Tassar moth cocoons. In ahimsa production, producers allow the moths to hatch. However, because the moths break the fibers as they emerge from their cocoons, the fibers are spun into “slubby threads” instead of reeled. Ahimsa is not as strong as reeled, but it is warmer and softer.
Producers of “peace silk” or “vegetarian silk" also allow all the moths to hatch, but they may still be made from bombyx mori silk fibers, which are inherently NOT cruelty-free.
Wild silk does not involve the bombyx mori, as this species does not exist in the wild. Therefore, it is a sustainable choice.
Not All Slubby Silk Is Ahimsa Silk
Some conventional silk cannot be reeled and is spun into a slubby fabric resembling ahimsa silk. Slubby silk may come from:
- Cultivated silk waste
- Double cocoons (the result of two caterpillars spinning together)
- Cocoons from moths hatched for breeding purposes
Manufacturers often label these slubby silks as dupioni or shantung, but they are NOT ahimsa silk; they are still made from bombyx mori fibers.
Wild silks are also slubby, but unlike cultivated silk, the caterpillars live an entirely natural life free from human interference; producers gather the empty cocoons only.
What To Do About It
If you choose to buy silk, choose wild silk, or Fair Trade ahimsa silk, preferably from Eri or Tassar moths. Another possibility is to buy silk secondhand, so that you do not increase the demand for “new” silk.
Some plant-derived fibers offer a similar look and feel to silk. Ingeo, made from corn, and Tencel, made from wood pulp, both resemble silk. Some types of cotton fabric mimic the luster and weight of silk as well.