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Historically, silk has been considered a luxury item with an illustrious history since its discovery by the Chinese Empress Shiling Ti in around 2640 BC.  However, the production of silk (sericulture) is undoubtedly cruel and is responsible for the deaths of billions of silkworms annually.  Though the practice was a well-kept secret in China for over 3000 years, it eventually spread to other parts of the world.

The silkworm or Bombyx mori (the larva or caterpillar of the domesticated silk moth) has been bred, farmed and killed for fashion for thousands of years most commonly in China, India, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Japan, Republic of Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, DPR Korea and Iran, and continues to be a thriving business to this day. Globally approximately 192692.45 metric tonnes of silk are produced annually. It takes approximately 2000-3000 silkworm cocoons to produce less than half a kilogram of silk.  This equates to a LOT of suffering.

In typical silk farming, the silk moth lays hundreds of eggs which hatch and become larvae (worms) over a period of around 14 days. They feed continuously on mulberry tree leaves for 2-3 weeks, going through a series of molts. The final transformation from larva to pupa occurs inside the self-made cocoon which is constructed from the salivary glands of the worm, producing approximately 1 kilometre of silk filament.

Pupae being boiled alive
Source: The Story of Ahimsa Silk

In a silk worm’s natural life cycle, an adult moth would hatch from the cocoon and go on to mate and produce more eggs and die shortly after.  However, during traditional silk production, the pupae are boiled, steamed or gassed alive inside their cocoons. This is so the enzyme normally released at this stage to create a hole in the cocoon from which the pupa emerges as a moth does not occur. This enzyme damages the integrity of the silk cocoon and affects the length and quality of the thread. Boiling, steaming or gassing the cocoon also allows the farmer to more easily unravel the silk.

The silkworm has been selectively bred to metamorphose into a moth incapable of flight.  So the lucky few who are allowed to complete their natural life-cycle to become breeding moths, suffer the frustration and distress of not being able to fly.

There is a new trend in sericulture called “Ahimsa” (meaning respect for all living beings and non-violence) or “Peace” silk, in which the pupae are allowed to hatch, and the silk filament is harvested from the empty cocoon.  Alternatively, the cocoon is cut open and the pupa is tipped out, so to avoid the contamination of the silk filament with the pupa’s urine.  This is still a deliberate premature cessation of the silk worm’s natural life cycle.

Although “Peace’ silk is marketed as a more humane method of silk production, the process still requires the breeding, farming and exploitation of silkworms, who have been genetically modified to be incapable of flight.  There is also inevitable “wastage” of eggs, and death of excess silkworms due to starvation.

There are many cruelty-free alternatives to silk such as nylon, rayon, milkweed seed pod fibers, silk-cotton tree and ceiba tree filaments. They are beautiful, comfortable, easy to clean, readily available and often far less expensive to purchase.  For a list of ethical clothing stores that feature products made of vegan materials in Australia see:

Author: Kathryn Stone
Vice President Vegan Rising

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