Dresses. Scarves. Long, floating skirts. Or soft, comfortable pyjamas. Silk has many uses – and somehow this animal-derived fabric has evaded the scrutiny that materials such as leather and fur tend to fall under. We just assume silk is a sustainable material, and many people believe that it comes from plants. But the truth is very different.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
What's wrong with silk?
Silk, just like leather, wool and fur, is a material that comes from animals – and it's a large-scale killer. Silk is the fibre that silk worms weave to make the cocoons that they live in during their pupal stage, and silk-industry workers often boil or gas the cocoons in order to access the threads that the silk yarn will be spun from. Worms are then boiled or gassed alive. Silk can also be made by killing the worms just before they begin spinning the cocoons and extracting their silk glands. An estimated 6.6 thousand worms are needed to make just one kilogram of silk.
Science is divided on the topic of worm sentience, but studies have shown that insects have responses to stimuli that may indicate they feel pain. In any case, vegan compassion does not and should not end at dogs, cows and mink – however small, all animals deserve a life free from human oppression and exploitation.
What about peace silk?
To appease consumers that want nothing to do with animal cruelty, eco-conscious brands dabble in a compromise called “peace silk”, where apparently worms get to live out their lives before farmers harvest the cocoons. But things are rarely that simple – any time animals are used in any kind of mass production, suffering is difficult to avoid. The findings of Indian organisation Beauty Without Cruelty on peace-silk farms confirmed this: farmers could not account for what happened to the worms once the cocoons were harvested, with some of the animals crushed or discarded. The males lived most of their lives in a refrigerator, brought out only to mate – and when their ability to do so declined, they were thrown away like garbage.
Aside from the animal abuse involved in “peace silk”, it's also important to note that choosing this kind of silk does not lessen the environmental impact of the material. The industry has for a long time touted silk as a “natural, eco-friendly choice” – but research shows us that this is another case of “natural” not necessarily meaning “better”.
Mulberry trees, which are home to silk worms, can be grown organically – but transforming the raw material into finished silk is a process that puts unnecessary strain on the environment. The Higg Materials Sustainability Index ranks silk higher than most other fibres for harmful impact on the planet – this is mainly due to its contribution to global warming and its use of fossil fuels during processing. The 2017 Pulse of Fashion Industry Report by the Boston Consulting Group also put silk in the second place (after another animal-derived fabric, cow leather) on its list of materials with the highest impact.
In today's fashion industry, the material that most commonly replaces silk is polyester – a petroleum-based, non-renewable, non-biodegradable environmental hazard. Staggeringly, nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used in the production of polyester each year. Polyester also comes with the problem of microplastics, which are released into the waterways every time it's washed. Luckily, a look beyond polyester and other synthetics reveals that naturally derived vegan fabrics can easily replace silk, which are colectively known as 'vegan silk' – here are some of the best.
Tencel Vegan Silk
TENCEL™ is a brand under the Austrian company Lenzing, and produces two materials that are often described as vegan silk. TENCEL™ lyocell and TENCEL™ modal fibres are becoming much-used textiles in sustainable fashion. They are both plant-based fibres derived from wood pulp cellulose from certified sustainable forests. To minimise waste, they're also made using closed-loop technology, meaning that resources such as water and chemicals are re-used. TENCEL™ fibres create a vegan silk that is strong, highly resistant to wear and wrinkle-free – and also biodegradable. Several Immaculate brands use both Lyocell and Modal for their vegan silk collections, including Neu Nomads, NINA REIN and blisko.
One of the oldest fibre crops in existence, ramie comes from the stalks of a flowering plant in the nettle family. It creates a beautiful vegan silk that holds its shape easily, and is naturally wrinkle-free. Ramie is also easy to dye, as it quickly absorbs colour.
Cupro comes from cotton linter – a part of the cotton plant that otherwise is wasted in cotton production, making cupro a by-product. As a vegan silk it drapes easily and has a soft, flowing texture reminiscent of silk. Immaculate brand Bona Fide uses Cupro in their vegan silk collection.
Italian Entrepreneurs Adriana Santanocino and Enrica Areno, founders of Orange Fibre, decided to harness an unlikely resource – orange peel. Italy generates one million tonnes of citrus fruit waste, and the peels proved to have fashion potential. The entrepreneurs' unique technology extracts cellulose from orange peels in Sicily – home to a large part of Italy's citrus fruit industry – and transforms it into a luxurious vegan silk fabric, which was featured in H&M's Conscious Exclusive collection in 2019.
Courtesy of US-based company Bolt Threads, Microsilk is a bioengineered vegan silk made to mimic the properties of spider silk. No spiders were used in the process – and neither are worms or other animals. Microsilk is made by adding genes into yeast and fermenting yeast, sugar and water, resulting in a material that rivals its animal-derived counterpart. Stella McCartney has experimented with Microsilk in a dress showcased in the “Fashioned from Nature” exhibit at London's Victoria & Albert Museum.
By Sascha Camilli
Sascha Camilli is the founder of the world's first digital vegan fashion magazine, Vilda Magazine and the host of fashion podcast Catwalk Rebel. She was selected as one of Glamour UK's Most Empowering Nu-Gen Activists and is a frequent public speaker on the topic of vegan fashion and material innovation. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, read our interview with her.
Cover image by Neu Nomads
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