When we think of silk, it invokes images of luxury. Luscious and soft, silk feels like the ultimate splurge. Not only have we been fed images of silk as the cream of the crop when it comes to natural and biodegradable fabrics, it’s also backed by studies that show the benefits it has to our skin. So why would one give up on such a desirable fabric? Let’s go back to the beginning.
How Silk Is Made
Growing up in South Africa, we used to keep silkworms as pets and very much enjoyed witnessing their life cycle which is around 6-8 weeks. The process begins with silkworms, who feed on mulberry leaves. They go on to spin a cocoon, which takes around 2-3 days. The larva starts to shrink in length, develops a hard skin and turns into a pupa, inside which the adult moth develops. This metamorphosis (change from larva to adult) takes about two to three weeks and the silkworm moth then emerges from its cocoon, destroying part of the valuable silk in the process.
Silk has been traced all the way back to Ancient China around 8500 years ago and remains one of the main sources of income for many rural communities to this day. Today, silk is produced in China, as well as India, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Brazil and Iran.
Concerns About Safe Labour Practices.
We already know that silk production has been a main source of income in rural communities for centuries, but at what cost? There have been terrible reports of child labour and adult slave labour in silk manufacturing as well as labourers facing health risks while working in silk factories. But as Quartz reports, there is both good and bad in the production of silk. When I began my journey of learning about silk and its manufacturing process, the lack of transparency about where and how silk was made was enough to make me question whether I wanted to use silk in my daily life and in the production of my own products.
In order to preserve the silk, the cocoon is usually boiled or steamed before the moth can emerge, thus preventing the moth from breaking and destroying part of the cocoon. The sheer number of silkworms being killed for silk is overwhelming, with 6600 worms killed for just one kilogram of silk. The estimate is that up to one trillion silkworms are killed globally in the manufacturing of silk. While there are other alternatives, such as ‘peace silk’, where the cocoon is left to naturally hatch, the moth only lives for around 10 days in captivity after hatching, which begs the question of whether it’s worth the extra cost, and whether the problem lies in the mass manufacturing of silkworms for fabric in the first place.
Despite being natural and biodegradable, silk has been shown to have a greater environmental impact than some of its synthetic alternatives. The main reason for this is very high energy requirements. The temperature and humidity requirements are quite specific, at around 20 degrees. Since silk is usually made in very hot climates, a large amount of energy is used for air conditioning and humidity control.
Silk production also requires a lot of water, both for growing mulberry trees for their food as well as water used to boil the cocoons for harvesting. Once the cocoons have been harvested, the silk threads are gently unraveled, washed and dried, using more water and electricity.
If you have your heart set on silk, opting for certified organic and non-toxic silk is your best bet, along with the always-more-sustainable option of buying second hand.
What I have switched over to both at home as well as for my products (ethical and sustainable eye masks for sleep) is Tencel. Specifically I use Tencel Lyocel for my masks, which have an incredibly luxurious feel, as well as being breathable and light. There are studies that have shown Tencel Lyocel to have temperature regulation qualities as well as oil and moisture control, making this an ideal alternative for sleep wear that has close contact with your skin.
Tencel lyocell fibers are ethically produced and are made from sustainable wood sources. They are certified as biodegradable and compostable and are third party certified zero carbon footprint.
As consumers, we are faced with so many choices and it can often feel overwhelming. I don’t think the aim is to be perfect, but by simply asking questions about where our products come from, how they’re made and perhaps most importantly, who makes them and under what conditions, we will be well on our way to making better choices. Better for people and better for planet.