You’d think that being a vegan is related to fabrics because veganism is often associated with a diet that abstains from using plant-based products. But vegan philosophy is more than just food. It is about following a lifestyle that respects the life of every living thing on the planet. In order to understand if silk is vegan, we need to first clear some essential points.
Silk is basically a protein fibre, which means it is produced by an insect and is an animal product. It is often the fibre that is harvested from the cocoon that some insects like spiders, moths and wasps form.
India has 4 types of Silk-
- Tussar Silk- It is produced by various moths belonging to the genus Antheraea. These moths are wild and hence it is a kind of will silk.
- Eri Silk- This silk is harvested from Samia ricini moths. They are domesticated moths reared for silk.
- Muga Silk- The Antheraea assamensis silkworm produces this silk. It is also a wild variety of silk.
- Mulberry Silk- This is perhaps the most popular silk and is produced by Bombyx mori moths. It has a unique sheen and uniform white fibres which have made it easy to handle and spin.
All these silks are produced by different types of moths and hence they have variations in texture, colour as well as shine.
Wild silks are often collected after the moths have left the cocoon and hence it is not a continuous fibre which gives it a coarse texture.
Silk is harvested pretty much the same way as it was done some 2000 years ago. Commercially Mulberry silk is the most in-demand silk, which is obtained from domesticated silkworms.
- A female moth lays eggs which become active in spring.
- These larvae feed on leaves of different plants based on the moths habitat and grow in size.
- Subsequently, the larva turns into a pupa and starts to spin a cocoon around itself.
(Approximately 104kg of mulberry leaves are consumed by at least 3000 pupae to produce 1 kg of silk.)
- It takes about 2-3 weeks for the pupae to turn into adult moths. It is usually at this point that the silk is harvested by boiling, steaming or drying the cocoon thereby killing the silkworm and getting silk.
- The moth if allowed to complete its cycle, secretes a liquid that helps it tear the cocoon and come out.
- The moth is alive for only a day and the sole purpose of its life is to find a mate and reproduce.
- A few moths are allowed to live and mate to obtain eggs for the next season.
If you want to know the lifecycle of a silkworm in detail, please refer to this article of Minimalist Vegan.
- According to PETA, 3,000 silkworms are killed to produce one pound of silk; and 10,000 silkworms to make one silk sari. That is a LOT of life killed for a piece of cloth that may not be a necessary accessory! And while it is not absolutely imperative to own silk, the association of silk with royalty and luxury has tempted many people to possess it.
- Mulberry silk is obtained from the Bombyx mori moth. These moths have been bred to produce a uniform, white silk fibre. This type of breeding has also caused moths to lose their ability to fly.
- Moths have been domesticated especially to produce silk and because of that, there are no wild moths of this species which means if humans somehow mess up, we may lose an entire species!
- The environmental impact of the silk industry is huge! In order to rear silkworms, massive amounts of water as well as fertilizers are used to grow mulberry trees. This means that the input necessary for cultivating per unit fibre is very large!
So what are the options for someone who wants to enjoy the sheen of silk without having to kill life? The answer is Ahimsa / peace Silk.
“Ahimsa” is a Sanskrit word that translates as “non-injury”. Ahimsa / peace Silk is known by many names- vegan silk, peace silk, cruelty-free silk, and non-violent silk. These refer to any silks produced without harming or killing the silkworms.
It was Rajaiah Kusuma, an officer of the Andhra Pradesh State Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society who pioneered the production of Ahimsa / peace silk during the early 2000s. He has a patent and a trademark to his name for the production of Ahimsa/peace Silk.
Ahimsa / peace silk is obtained without killing the silkworms; which means we wait until the life cycle of the moth completes naturally. When they grow in four weeks, the silkworms start oozing liquid from their glands to form an oval shape cocoon. In 8 to 10 days, the silkworm grows into a silk moth.
Once this process completes, the cocoons and the moths are separated by hand without harming the moth. Then the silk is extracted from the broken cocoon by boiling them; this silk is spun into yarn. So, ahimsa variants of all silks are possible.
Interestingly, Eri silk is always Ahimsa/peace silk, because the Samia ricini moths form an uneven and non-uniform filament for the cocoon. Hence this silk is always hand spun and is not a continuous fibre.
|Ahimsa Silk||Commercial Silk|
|Process of Production||Silkworms are not killed to harvest silk||Silkworms are killed to harvest silk|
|Type of Fiber produced||Short filaments of silk are obtained and hence textured fabric is produced||A continuous fibre is obtained|
|Govt. Recognized mark||Currently, there is no identification mark for Ahimsa Silk||The Silk mark is used to authenticate commercial silk.|
|Time for production||This method is 60-80 days process.||This method is 50-72 days long process.|
|Cost of Silk||Ahimsa Silk is costlier.||Commercial Silk is cheaper than Ahimsa Silk.|
|Use of Equipment||Ahimsa Silk is largely handspun.||Commercial Silk can be reeled with machines.|
|Amount of Labor involved||More labour intensive||Less labour intensive|
|Type of Silk||Textured and soft||Smooth and soft|
Yes and No.
There are people with various dietary choices. Vegetarians, Eggitarians, Non-vegetarians. All of these people consume vegetables but their preference for meat is different. It’s the same with being vegan. You can choose to be vegan by following the diet only or you can choose veganism as a lifestyle as well as a diet. It depends on how much veganism influences your choices.
- Technically, silk in itself is not vegan because it is after all an animal product. Depending on the extent of veganism that you follow, you can decide if you want to use silk or not.
- Most silk produced kills moths and there is no sure-shot way to know if the silk you are buying is Peace silk.
- Ahimsa/peace Silk is a better way of producing silk because it is cruelty-free.
- Ahimsa/peace Silk is made from the cocoons that moths leave behind. This means the cocoons have a hole. Due to this, the silk filaments aren’t continuous. This means it needs to be hand spun. These and many such processing steps of Ahimsa/peace Silk generate rural employment.
- Ahimsa/peace Silk is soft textured and is as durable as normal silk. Infact some claim that Ahimsa/peace Silk is softer and smoother than normal silk.
The production process of Ahimsa Silk is labor-intensive and lengthy. This makes the silk costlier than regular silk. Also, Indian markets are flooded with cheap artificial silks in the guise of being affordable which prevents people from looking at other environmentally friendly options.
To make Ahimsa Silk marketable, there needs to be a change in the perspective of the consumers. The fact that few people are aware about Ahimsa Silk is an indication that there is a lot more to be done to popularize this great alternative!
According to Veganism, animal products in any form are a no-no. So the inherent quality of silk being a protein fibre from an animal makes it non-vegan.
So fibres that are obtained from plants are the only true vegan silks. Today, we have a range of options - banana fabric, bamboo fabric etc. All these fabrics have the look and feel of silk fabric but are made from plant fibres. These materials are vegan in the true sense.