The environmental benefits and ethical considerations of silk
Until the advent of synthetic fibers in the early 20th century, silk was almost essential for a huge range of fashion items- from stockings and underwear, to ribbons and lace. It also represented the height of luxury. For more than a millennia, this luxurious and delicate fiber inspired the Silk Road trade routes from China through Central Asia, the Middle East, and into Europe. Silk was partially responsible for starting the Opium War between China and Britain (tea and porcelain ceramics were other contributors). Britain was worried about the increasing trade deficit that they had with China. They had nothing that could equal the finery of silk, and they produced nothing that they Chinese wanted from them. So Britain turned to peddling opium into China, and when the Chinese tried to restrict the trade of opium Britain declared war. Silk is arguably still the world’s most luxurious fiber, soft and lovely to wear, with a beautiful luster.
Silk is made by spinning and weaving the strong fibers from the chrysalis of silkworms. Although, incredibly, there is one woman in Sardinia that still harvests and spins a silk made from solidified clam spit). Silk from silkworms is far more ubiquitous, and is the fiber that we are all familiar with. Silk is a beautiful natural fibers that has been produced for thousands of years. It completely biodegradable and has a very low environmental impact.
In conventional silk production, the silkworms are fed with mulberry crops that require some pesticide and fertilizer. However, these crops require far fewer chemical inputs that conventional cotton. Conventional silk production also washes the fibers in chemical detergents which are a low level pollutant if released untreated. Because much of the world’s supply of silk originates in China, there is a good chance that the silk that you come across is contributing to pollution in this way. However, the chemical processes involved in silk production are far lower impact that those in conventional cotton production or synthetics. Silk is also suitable for low impact dyes, which may reduce the impact of the colouring process.
There is a cruelty element to conventional silk production as well. The process involves boiling the silkworm chrysalis before the moths have emerged. This, quite obviously, kills the moths in the process. Peace silk is a type of silk which allows the moth to emerge before harvesting the cocoon. If you want avoid the cruelty associated with conventional silk production, this process does not harm the moth and makes use of a chrysalis that has now been discarded by the insect. Some vegans may be comfortable wearing peace silk for this reason.
Tussah is a different type of silk worm to conventional mulberry silk, and the farming of tussah silk doesn’t involve the chemicals that mulberries do. Wild (harvested), peace silk and certified organic silk varieties avoid the low level environmental harms associated with conventional silk. To minimise the environmental impact of the silk that you wear, I would look for wild, peace or tussah silk or certified organic silk. If you are buying conventional silk, try to shop with brands that have transparent supply chains, so that you can choose fabric made in a factory that has water treatment protocols in place.
Silk garments are often stated as “Dry Clean Only”, and this cleaning method can almost undo your positive environmental choices by choosing silk. I have found that silk garments respond well to hand-washing and pressing with a gentle cool iron (protecting the silk from the iron by covering it with a tea-towel or cloth). Do not buy “Dry Clean Only” garments unless you a confident that you could care for the garment in this way. If in doubt it is better not to buy the garment.
Silk is a beautiful fiber, and if you look after it then it will last you for many years. Silk garments that do develop tears or holes can be mended or can also be re-purposed to beautiful patchwork homewares or new garments. Vintage silk saris are a favourite of mine to make new flowing skirts from. Silk stockings were once an investment garment that women had mended by a dressmaker time and time again. I’d like to see silk come back in this way. In the meantime, embrace silk for your special occasion garments. It is a beautiful sustainable fiber if you are careful about your source.
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