If you’ve ever seen how silk is made, you know how fascinating the process is. The silk strands that ultimately become wedding dresses and other garments are literally unraveled from cocoons. Sometimes the silkworm caterpillars have already emerged as moths before their cocoons are harvested — and sometimes they have not.
As you might guess, this harvesting determines whether or not the silk is humane. It also determines the qualities, price, and texture of silk that we buy.
We’ll cover how silk is made to be sleek and smooth vs. warm and “slubby”. We’ll also compare ahimsa peace silk to wild silk, and see how some popular vegan silk alternatives measure up.
Let’s start with how the silkworm weaves its amazing cocoon and how harvesting its thread makes all the difference.
Harvesting the silk thread
To create its cocoon, the silkworm secretes one continuous strand of saliva, which hardens into a protective shell to keep the silkworm safe during its metamorphosis into a moth.
Soon after, this protective cocoon is boiled or steamed to soften the shell, so it can easily be unraveled into silk thread.
Unraveling the cocoon determines the texture
In nature, the silkworm moth basically spits a hole in the cocoon and then pokes its way through to fly away. This natural escape breaks the long, continuous silk strand into several shorter strands that will need to be “repaired” once the cocoon is softened and unraveled.
When the strands are woven back together, the resulting threads have little nubs where each strand meets. This silk is called “slubby”, which may sound like a negative trait, but the warm and cozy fabric it produces is actually a highly valued quality that is priced at a premium.
And because the silkworm emerges unharmed from its cocoon, slubby silk is often labeled as Ahimsa (Peace) Silk. (“Ahimsa” is a Sanskrit word that means “do no harm”.)
By contrast, cocoons that are unraveled as a single, continuous thread create the sleek, smooth texture of most silks. Unfortunately, the only way to keep the cocoon intact is to boil (soften) it with the silkworm moth still inside. This non-Ahimsa method is how most silk is produced.
Humane harvesting produces better silk
I know, I know. With all the injustices going on in the world, cruelty to silkworms doesn’t exactly top the list of concerns. For starters, silkworms aren’t exactly cute and cuddly. They also don’t bark, meow, moo, oink, chirp or verbally communicate in any way, which makes them even harder to relate to.
Still, regardless of your feelings toward the silkworm, the fact is that the more humane alternatives also tend to produce more desirable silk.
Ahimsa peace silk
Because the silkworm is allowed to escape its cocoon unharmed, Peace Silk sounds like the humane solution. And to some, it is. But there’s a twist.
The thing is, even Peace Silk is not perfectly humane. You see, after emerging from the cocoon, moths mate and the females each lay hundreds of eggs. But silk farms have a limited supply of food and they can’t feed all the hatchlings.
So although the silkworm moths have emerged safely from their cocoons and will die naturally, most of their offspring will die from starvation or dehydration within a few days of birth. Since that’s not much better than being boiled alive, animal activists consider peace silk as inhumane as conventional silk.
Eri silkworms are allowed to emerge safely from their cocoons and some Ahimsa peace silk is marketed as Eri Silk.
In contrast to farmed silkworms, where the food supply is determined by the farm, wild silkworms live in their natural surroundings and have the means to feed themselves. These wild silkworms also tend to produce a higher quality of silk than non-wild (domesticated) silkworms, as a result of their natural diet. And when permitted to leave their cocoons naturally, wild silk is also considered a more humane alternative than regular peace silk.
Is wild peace silk really wild?
Let’s say you go walking in the woods and you find beautiful wildflowers growing there. You admire them for a little while and decide to plant some in your yard.
They’re pretty easy to manage because they’re wildflowers and they mostly take care of themselves. But you do still water them from time to time and care for them as needed. You also still call them wildflowers, even though they’re not really wild anymore. That’s how you can think of wild silk too.
Wild silkworms live in an environment that mimics how they would naturally live and, like cultivated wildflowers, they mostly take care of themselves. Wild silkworms feed on the (farmed) trees in which they live and they spin their protective cocoons in those same trees, just like they would in the wild.
They also live and eat on their own schedule without the artificial lights or carefully controlled environment that manipulates cultivated silkworms. But their environment is technically still a farm and their trees and food supply are still managed by the farm’s finite resources.
So although they are called “wild” silkworms, they are not truly wild.
Is wild peace silk humane (ahimsa)?
Wild silk is more natural than cultivated silk, but keep in mind that wild silk cocoons may still be harvested before the silkworm has emerged. As a result, wild silk is only peace silk if it has been harvested after the silkworm has safely emerged from its cocoon. In this case, it will be specifically labeled as wild peace silk.
And while a wild silk farm has greater natural resources than a fully cultivated silk farm, it still cannot support millions of silkworm offspring. The difference is that while some wild peace silkworms will die of starvation or dehydration as regular peace silkworms do, most wild peace silkworms would presumably be eaten by birds, ants, and spiders in their farmed-yet-natural environment.
The natural beauty of wild peace silk
As a result of their natural diet, the fibers produced by the cocoons of wild silkworms tend to be more durable and stain-resistant than regular cultivated silk. The color of wild silk is also naturally rich and beautiful, so it is rarely dyed or bleached. And since wild silk is minimally processed, its fabric contains far fewer chemicals than cultivated silk. In fact, it is sometimes produced with no chemicals at all.
Vegan silk alternatives
If you’re not crazy about the idea of silkworm silk — not matter how “humane” — here are two vegan options to consider.
1. Viscose rayon (sometimes called artificial silk) and lyocell (trademarked as Tencel®) closely mimic the look, feel and superb drape of silk. Both rayon and lyocell are breathable, comfortable fabrics that are easily dyed. They also do not pill and they blend well with other fibers.
While the rayon is made from renewable resources (usually bamboo or beech trees), its processing does require the use of chemicals, as well as high use of water and energy. (Note: Most silk is also processed with chemicals to improve its look, feel and wearability.)
By contrast, lyocell comes from the eucalyptus tree and does not require toxic chemicals to transform it into a fabric. Its manufacturing also tends to be a closed-loop process that uses minimal amounts of water, making it a more earth-friendly fabric to bamboo.
2. Synthetic fabrics such as nylon or polyester are also considered viable silk alternatives. These fabrics offer similar properties to silk, particularly when they are blended with cotton, wool or linen. Like rayon, they are manufactured with harsh chemicals.
Which silk should you choose?
Animal rights groups often recommend synthetic fabrics and textiles as a more compassionate alternative. Those who counter this view (in favor of silk) argue that synthetic fabrics are produced from chemicals and petroleum derivatives that are harmful to the environment and factory workers, and may be harmful to the person wearing the silk.
That said, silk production is often just as dangerous as synthetic alternatives. Harmful metallic salts, bleaches and chemical dyes are used to improve the look and wearability of the silk. And flame retardants and other chemicals may be added to improve silk’s resistance to burns, wrinkles, static and water stains.
Raw silk is free from chemicals
The good news for those seeking to avoid chemicals is that wedding dresses, ties, scarves and other textiles can be made from raw silk, which is not chemically processed or treated with heavy metals. You can also avoid labels that boast things like “wrinkle-free” and “stain-resistant” while opting for labels that market qualities such as “100% naturally dyed”, “undyed” or “unbleached”.
The worm or the workers?
- If your concern is ultimately for the silkworm, then silk alternatives are your best bet with wild peace silk as your runner up. (NOTE: Wild peace silk is often labeled Eri silk or non-violent Tussar silk.)
- If your concern is for the health and safety of the workers, the wearer (you), and the environment, then raw silk (ideally raw wild peace silk) is probably your best choice.
Rent, buy or swap gently worn silk