Though silk is a natural fiber that’s highly valued for its strength and sheen, it’s unfortunately not a cruelty-free material. Silk is produced by silkworms who spin fine threads of silk to create the cocoons they nest in during their magical metamorphosis into silk moths. Did you know that one cocoon is made of between 300 and 900 yards of silk thread? Also, it takes about two thousand worms to make one pound of silk.
Silk is not cruelty-free or eco-friendly
The conventional method to make silk is to boil or gas the cocoons in order to kill the silkworms and harvest their silk. Since this process involves killing, silk production is not cruelty-free.
Conceived in India, “ahimsa silk” or “peace silk” is made by harvesting the silk only once the silkworm has emerged from its cocoon naturally. Though the Sanskrit word ahimsa means non-violence, this method can’t be considered cruelty-free either because it requires forced breeding. Also, once male silkworms stop reproducing, they’re discarded.
There are also environmental impacts of silk production, whatever the method used to make it. The ecological footprint of silk is in fact bigger than any other textile because it requires a lot of water to produce.
Vegan alternatives to silk
Today there are many cruelty-free alternatives to silk made from a variety of plant-based products, many of which are recycled to create silk-like materials. We’re sharing a few of these with you here. Warning: many of these are truly surprising!
Microsilk™ looks and feels very much like real silk, but is completely vegan. Made by US-based Bolt Threads, it’s a bioengineered and biosynthetic fiber made by fermenting yeast, sugar, and water with spider DNA. Spiders… you ask? Yes, the fabric was engineered to mimic spider silk though spiders are not used in the actual production process.
After studying the silk created by the wasp spider as it spins its own web, scientists at Bolt Threads succeeded in bioengineering the spider’s genes in a lab. Once these are implanted in yeast and fermented along with sugar and water, the result is a liquid silk protein which can be spun into threads and then woven in a silk-like fabric.
Microsilk had its day when in a collaboration between Adidas and fashion designer Stella McCartney, a biodegradable tennis dress was fashioned using this innovative silk-like fabric.
When it comes to luxury vegan silk, lotus silk is high up on the luxe scale. This is one of the most expensive fabrics because of the labor-intensive process required to produce it. It’s handmade from the fibers of the stem of the lotus plant which are usually discarded once its blossoms are cut. Once extracted from the plant, the threads need to be woven within 24 hours.
This natural microfiber is soft, light, and breathable but also resistant to fungus, bacteria, and UV rays. Also, unlike real silk, lotus silk is also wrinkle-free.
Lotus silk weaving originated in Burma in the early 1900s where it’s considered to be a sacred fabric because it was used to weave monastic robes for Buddhist monks.
Soy silk is another natural fiber made from recycled materials, in this case, the protein fibers of soybean meal which is leftover when making soybean oil or soy products such as tofu. These protein fibers are woven into a soft and strong thread which is then used to make a delicate fabric.
Soysilk is gaining in popularity as an emerging new fiber in the sustainable fashion industry. When blended with other natural fibers such as cotton, it adds a silky quality to fabrics. Also called vegetable cashmere, soy silk doesn’t wrinkle or shrink.
It was Henry Ford who invented this innovative fabric, wearing soy garments and even incorporating soy fabric into the upholstery of Ford cars in the early 1940s.
Orange peel is the unlikely waste product that is recycled into orange silk. To make it, the fibers of orange husks discarded by the juicing industry are extracted and transformed into a soft cellulose material called Orange Fiber Fabric.
This is the brainchild of Italian entrepreneurs Adriana Santanocino and Enrica Areno, the founders of Orange Fiber. Each year, 700,000 metric tonnes of leftover orange peels are recycled into this amazing fabric in Italy.
Orange silk had its debut on Earth Day 2017 in a special fashion collection of exclusive garments created by Salvatore Ferragamo. Two years later, it was launched worldwide as part of H&M’s Conscious Exclusive collection.
Pineapple silk has a long history in the Philippines where it was cultivated for the textile industry since the 17th century. Called piña, this natural fiber is extracted from the leaves of the pineapple plant and woven into a lightweight fabric with an ivory-white color and a smooth silk-like texture.
After the leaves are cut away from the pineapple plant, the fibers are scraped by hand and then knotted into long threads. This is then spun into fabric and used to make traditional garments and wedding dresses.
Piña, or pineapple silk, is called the “queen of Philippine fabrics”. There are few piña weavers left today but this traditional eco-friendly fabric is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. In 2021, Raquel R. Eliserio, a piña weaver, received international recognition with a Global Eco Artisan Award 2021.