Is silk sustainable?

Silk is one of the most luxurious types of fabric used in the fashion industry and also in products for the home. You can find it in cushions, pillow and duvet covers, bedspreads, lampshades and others. According to a Chinese legend, it was discovered by an empress who was sipping her tea under a mulberry tree when a cocoon fell into her cup and began to open up to reveal the shiny fibres.

There is no doubt that silk is a beautiful material. It keeps you cooler when the weather is warm and warmer the the weather is cool. It is even claimed that your hair and skin can improve if you sleep on silk bedding. But is it sustainable?

There are several reasons why silk can be considered very sustainable but also reasons why you may prefer to avoid it. We will explain below what some of these characteristics are.

Natural

Silk is a natural material, a protein fibre produced by silkworms. This fibre is excreted from its glands in one continuous filament of up to 1.3m in order to build the cocoon. When ready, the filament is unwound from the cocoon, dried and weaved in a loom to make the silk fabric.

Biodegradable

As silk is a natural fibre it will easily biodegrade in the soil when discarded after the end of its useful life and will not pollute the environment like other petroleum-based fabrics such as acrylic or nylon. It can be composted together with your food and garden waste.

Non-vegan

The commercial production process certainly cannot be considered vegan as it involves killing the silk worm in boiling water during the extraction of the silk thread from the cocoon. This is done so the 1.3 m long thread produced inside each cocoon can remain intact. If the worm was allowed to leave the cocoon naturally as a moth it would break the thread into pieces of approximately 15cm which would make the production of silk fabric in large scale challenging. Fortunately, there are silk alternatives which are produced in a commercial process where the worm is not harmed. The cocoon is harvested after the moth has had the chance to leave it. This is called peace silk or vegan silk and products which contain this type of silk will be clearly labelled.

‘Free Range’

There is another type of silk which is called Tussah, Tussur silk or wild silk. This results from the harvesting of cocoons from the field after the moth has emerged naturally. This is the most natural way of harvesting silk but the fabric will have a darker and less lustrous appearance. Colour will also vary depending on the worm’s diet in the wild.

butterfly of cocoon and eggs
Silk moth laying eggs

Renewable

Silk is produced by the silkworm larvae, excreted from its glands in order to build the cocoon. This process can be repeated indefinitely both in commercial silk production and wild silk production. Fossil fuel based fabrics, on the other hand, use a finite resource that cannot be easily replenished.

Non-Local

The majority of the silk that can be found in the world is farmed and produced in India or China. This means that if you are buying silk products for your home anywhere else in the world it is almost certain that it has traveled a long way before reaching you. Given that carbon emissions from transportation are a big contributor to global warming, choosing products made of locally produced materials would be more beneficial to the environment.

Non-Toxic

As with any other type of fabric silk is usually dyed. Many dyes applied to fabrics can be toxic and sometimes formaldehyde can be used in the finishing process of silk, which could affect your health. To avoid having any toxic materials in your home look for undyed silk or silk dyed with non-toxic dyes. Also, have a look for silk that is finished with citric acid rather than formaldehyde.

As you can see from the above, silk is a sustainable material in many ways but can have a few drawbacks. If you are against the use of any type of living creature in any way in the production of products for your home then certainly silk is not for you. Fortunately, there are alternative types of silk that not only are sustainable but also do not cause any harm to the silkworm. With a little bit of research you may be able to find silk products that fit your values. If you are buying new silk materials for your home make sure to check the sustainability and ethical credentials of these and Green it Yourself…Now!

 


Do you know any other characteristics of silk? Have an opinion on the use of this type of fabric in home products? Please tell us on the comments below!

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