What’s so peaceful about silk?

I confess to being a bit suspicious of Peace Silk until very recently.  I have a gentle student who objected to using regular silk in a project.  I was aware of peace silk, but I couldn’t help (secretly) rolling my eyes at her objections.  Sure, in the usual silk making process, the cocoons are boiled alive.  They’re *bugs*.  I can hardly bring myself to shed a tear for them.  She ended up using linen, the result was gorgeous.

Because I respect this particular student so much, I couldn’t accept my own opinion of Peace Silk without examining it further.  This also intersects with my research into sustainable, ethical fibres.

I am ashamed of my previous attitude.

(Mulberry leaves, silk fodder)

Farmed silkworms eat mulberry leaves.  They spin cocoons for themselves of a single silk filament.  The cocoons are exposed to heat to kill the chrysalis, and the cocoons are boiled to allow the silk filament to unwind.  The single filament is spun with other silk filaments to create a silk thread for weaving.  That is the general outline, it varies regionally and between different operations.

 (Bombyx mori)

The most common silk producing moth, Bombyx mori, was bred by the Chinese.  They kept silk making practices a secret and bred the moths to be flightless and blind.  It hardly seems like cruelty to kill something so overbred.  Silk Road explains sericulture more in depth.

With the Peace Silk process, the chrysalis emerges before workers harvest the cocoon.  As much as killing a bug doesn’t bother me, I don’t allow my naturalist Husband to raise cocoons only to kill the emerging butterflies or moths for that “perfect specimen.”  It makes me ill and seems unsporting. I suppose I’m a little inconsistent on the bug-must-die front.

In some Peace Silk farming operations, the live moths have to be killed after they emerge to allow the population to remain stable.  This is where the controversy arises about whether a silk is “Peace” silk or not.

In other operations, the cocoons are gathered from the wild, or as a complementary crop with another fibre.  I think of that as “semi-wild.”  This process is often touted as true Peace Silk.  The cocoons come from the wild or semi-wild, and so are defacto organic as well.  This is the silk I can see myself choosing to buy.

With either Peace Silk process, the producers card and spin the cocoons much like any other fibre.  The emerging moth damages the cocoon and the silk strands, so silk threads can not be produced the usual way.   I’m keen to explore the different texture created by this process.

True Peace Silk (or Ahimsa Silk) is ethical, cruelty free to humans (no slave labor, no child labor) as well as bugs, and supports traditional ways of life.   Most are spun in homes or small village operations as they have been for generations.  I find the variety of colors and textures that emerge from the wild rather interesting:

(Muga Silk, naturally golden)
(Dervish Cloth, naturally brown; very soft, very tough)
(Noil, with a windowpane weave)
(Noil, pure white naturally)
Most of these silks cost a little bit more than regular silk I might buy.  However, digging around into textile sustainability has taught me a very important lesson:  
The most sustainable way to consume clothing is to consume less.
I could buy several pieces of regular silk for the cost of one or two pieces of Ahimsa.   As I learn more about sustainability, I begin to see myself and my role of consumer as a link in a chain or a thread in a web.  I am not the only person involved in the clothes I wear, I am not the final destination.  I am not an island.  I like to think about where the fabric comes from.  I want my consumer choices to positively affect the lives of others.  If ethical buying means I can afford to consume less, so much the better.
I realize all of those pictures come from the same seller.  Her entire website reads like a one-woman crusade; I enjoy and understand single-minded obsessions in others.  She personally inspects many of the silk production operations in India; ethical fabrics and dyes are her passion.

16 comments

  1. Very interesting! I had no idea. The picture of the moth is really very pretty up close, even for a moth. And I do just love the textural look of those silks…

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  3. Totally fascinating– thanks for this! I’d never even heard that term! I do always wonder when I buy fabric what the source is — what were the environmental and labor conditions?but I should probably be more informed about my choices.

  4. The idea of gathering from the wild makes me wonder about the impact on wild populations (at least if the practice grows). I have a hard time worrying too much about individual insect lives as long as a practice doesn’t put the natural population in danger (and letting a large number of flightless, helpless moths live to emerge only to be killed later doesn’t seem like a particular improvement), but the idea of ethical practices with regards to the people who spin and weave the material is appealing.

    Not that I practice any of what I preach, so perhaps I should leave this discussion to those who actually live by their eco-conscious ethics. My best contribution to consuming less is buying second-hand, and even that’s dubious… ;)

    • Well, when it’s wild-gathered they just pick up the empty cocoons.

      I’m not that interested in the moths, but I am interested in ethical treatment of humans and supporting traditional ways of life… ;)

  5. As a wholefood vegetarian who dabbles in veganism/raw food (21 years plus) I’m careful about where things come from generally, and this idea of ‘ethical/peace’ silk has got me interested, will look into this a bit more me thinks! X

  6. When I first saw the giant blown-up picture of the moth, I confess I had a tiny freak out. I know, how did I end up teaching AP Bio, right? But anyway, thanks for shedding some light on this issue. I remember visiting a silk farm/factory in China several years ago and my one takeaway (I was in high school) was eeewww all those bugs get boiled alive. As an adult, I still feel ewww about bugs, but I can definitely get behind the human element of peaceful silk.

  7. I showed my girls the pictures of the cocoons and moths and they are fascinated. If I had a source of mulberry leaves, I’d let them raise some – and we could have some fun with our peaceful silk cocoons afterwards :)

    On a completely different note, I adored mulberry trees as a kid growing up in Australia – loved climbing them, loved the texture of the leaves, loved the berries… fun times. Stands to reason I LOVE silk, the colour, texture, the sounds…

    BUT your argument is powerful to me… I will use the silk already in my stash, but methinks I may only do silk peacefully in the future. I love how respectful it is.

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  10. Hi, This is Cheryl Kolander = Aurora Silk. I wonder why you have mentioned me but not by name, mentioned my “crusade” but not the place where people could make purchases, which will enrich their life, and help the people in India continue this process. I am the person who coined this phrase, and have more than talked about it, I have created it as a viable product for the world. I also raise a special, naturally florescent strain of silkworms every year. They will go extinct if I do not do this. Anyway, it would be nice if you would please let people know who I am? Sincerely, Cheryl Kolander

    • Cheryl, I believe you just introduced yourself far more plainly than I ever could. When I wrote this, indeed up until this comment, we’ve never corresponded. My intention was to share a bit of knowledge, and sharing my personal perspective.


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