Can Silk be Cruelty-Free? (Includes 3 Ethical Alternatives)

by Becky

February 9, 2021

Silk is an elegant material from which the most beautiful articles of clothing are created.

But, what if we told you that 2000 silkworms were gassed or boiled alive for your opulent silk dress? 

Although this tarnishes the fashionable impression you wanted to make – it is an unfortunate reality. The majority of silk products are not cruelty-free.

However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t be?

The majority of the silk is not cruelty-free because of the harvesting process. There is one method of harvesting silk that’s cruelty-free, known as Ahimsa, or Peace Silk. Although this process has its shortcomings, it is the most humane way to acquire silk without the death of billions of silkworms every year.

In addition to Ahimsa silk, many alternative products have the same luxurious feeling as natural silk but are provided by plants or other animals in a cruelty-free manner.

Each alternative has its benefits and shortcomings, but it’s all used to create quality clothing that you will like.

Ahimsa Silk, the Cruelty-Free Method

Silkworm on a leaf

Kusuma Rajaiah created Ahimsa or Peace Silk method in the early 2000s. His goal was to create a cruelty-free sericulture method that was non-violent, following Ahimsa’s beliefs and the principles of Gandhi.

The vital difference between this method and the mainstream sericulture method is that silkworms live to adulthood and emerge from their silk cocoons as moths.

They are not harvested during their period of transformation. Additionally, the silkworms and moths used for Ahimsa silk are wild-caught and bred rather than tame.

Although it is impressive that Ahimsa Silk can yield products that are just as beautiful as the ones made using the mainstream method – it does come with shortcomings and complications.

The biggest challenge with producing Ahimsa silk is that it takes ten days longer to cultivate because workers must wait for the pupa to transform and emerge fully. 

It’s a massive amount of extra time needed compared to the mainstream method. So the Ahimsa method cannot produce silk at the same rate for market purposes.

Another shortcoming is that Ahimsa Silk is nearly double the cost of mainstream silk products because the moth damages the cocoon after it emerges.

This significantly decreases the yield of each cocoon to about one-sixth of the fiber volume. The cocoon's damage causes the final product to have a somewhat raw appearance, which might not be desirable.

However, if you seek a humane alternative to mainstream silk products, Ahimsa Silk is the best way to get the same luxurious silk without costing the makers their lives.

The Mainstream Process

Before discussing the alternatives to sericulture, it’s important to know what this process is, why it is the dominant method, and why alternatives are essential.

Silk is a natural protein fiber created by silkworms in their pupal state as they transition into moths.

During metamorphosis, the worms wrap themselves in a cocoon made of this precious silk until they are prepared to emerge. The silk industry domesticates and raises thousands of silkworms until they are ready for harvest.

Once silkworms finish building their cocoons, workers will either gas or boil them alive while they are in their cocoons.

This process is done in about 15 minutes and ensures that the silk’s integrity is kept. Most silkworms do not live past this state, but those who live to adulthood suffer just as tragic a fate.

Male silkworms are permitted to live until adulthood purely for mating purposes, and then they are disposed of as well.

Females may live until they reproduce, and then they are crushed, examined for diseases that would warrant the culling of her eggs, and then discarded.

The mainstream method of sericulture, or silk farming, is more cost-efficient than its alternatives. Unfortunately, it also costs the most amount of silkworm lives.

About 6,600 silkworms are killed to make one kilogram of silk. This is the weight equivalent of a bottle of wine. So you can only imagine how many billions of silkworms are killed annually for commercial purposes. 

Silk Alternatives

Spider silk

There are a few silk alternatives that are created by other insects or by plants. Most of these methods are not commonly known or widely used because they are laborious and time-consuming.

Even though the products are more expensive to buy – each method still yields products with the same elegance and luxurious quality as mainstream sericulture.

Lotus Silk

This fabric is one of the world's rarest types of silk. It is only produced in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam on small scales. Only a handful of craftsmen in the world are skilled enough to extract this natural fiber from the lotus stems.

This process must be done by hand, and the threads have to be processed within 24 hours of their harvesting.

It can take two months to extract enough fiber to create a single product, mainly because the lotus plant is only available for harvesting from April to October.

As a result of this grueling processes and its products' overall rarity, craftsmen will distinguish standard silk as an elegant material and lotus silk to fit nobility. 

Spider Silk

Spider silk is something we all probably see at some point in our day. We just never picture wearing it. The natural fiber spun by spiders is both robust and elastic, making it highly versatile.

This material can be used to create anything from sturdy armor to runway dresses.

Historically, this silk has been used to bandage wounds or strengthen fishing nets. But the most significant challenge that the clothing industry has is that spiders are notoriously tricky to domesticate.

On a small-scale, acquiring the material is simple, but having enough to make a garment takes vast amounts of time.

Companies and fashion individuals are still trying to unlock the vast potential of spider silk to make it more universally accessible.

Citrus Silk

A recent development in silk alternatives called Orange Fiber is a form of vegan silk created out of citrus fruit scraps.

This company has been recognized and praised for its sustainable mission and product as well as its innovation.

The use of citrus fibers in scraps is environmentally friendly and reduces overall waste, and is biodegradable.

Orange Fiber is an Italian company focusing its efforts on perfecting its product and expanding its brand.

As only releasing their patented process in 2013, they are incredibly new to the world of silk alternatives.

Still, they are currently striving to make their orange fiber products a staple in the luxury clothing industry.

Final Thoughts

The cheapest way to acquire silk products is through companies that are not cruelty-free.

Humane alternatives allow you to have that same beautifully crafted product with the priceless benefit of peace of mind.

Unfortunately, most of these alternatives are not cost-efficient. So, if you genuinely want to support the humane treatment of silkworms without buying products made by the mainstream method, it’s probably best to buy other clothing materials.

Animal-free materials, such as nylon, silk-cotton tree filaments, and rayon, are all exceptional alternatives that are guaranteed to be humane and affordable.

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