MATERIAL MATTERS: Is silk the most toxic of them all?

For all of silk’s perfectly positive traits, the fibre isn’t without a more sinister side.

Words Hannah Cole

Growing up in the homely suburbs of Sydney, there was one rite of passage that few kids in my area managed to avoid: homing, feeding, and watching the gradual transformation of silkworms. We would ransack the neighbourhood mulberry trees to keep our precious worms alive, until the boredom sunk in and they became the burden of our parents (or a treat for native wildlife). The particularly ‘off’ smell of these worms as they munched away in my old shoe box will never leave my memory.

Although I never named my them, I feel a relative kinship to these odd, striped creepy-crawlies. Even with an interest in fashion and the technicality of fabrics, I managed to ignore the obvious in the ‘silk’ prefix of their name. At the age of eight, I had no idea my cardboard den housed such a pricey commodity. 

Many of us have been groomed to view silk as a sustainable fibre, heralding the “natural is best” way of thinking. As we’ve recently learnt (here’s looking at you, SPF), that isn’t always the case. Years ago I heard of peace silk; it sat there dormant and waiting. Now the awakening has come.

For all of silk’s positive traits, including beauty, lustre and feel, the fibre isn’t without a dark side. A bonafide vegan would never go near a silk slip reeling off stats of animal cruelty and abuse. It’s true: traditional methods of silk farming are horrible to read. Once cocooned, silkworms are boiled alive in the cocoon to keep the casing intact. If left to their natural devices the silky swaddling would tear and puncture following the metamorphosis. PETA reports that roughly 3,000 silkworms are killed to make one pound of silk (equating to about 6,600 silkworms per kilogram of silk). 

There is another, less destructive option: peace silk. While the fibre is still derived from the work of silkworms, peace silk is deemed cruelty-free as it allows the moths to hatch themselves. Torn cocoons are then woven back together, which does make the process more costly and time-draining. It’s not necessarily vegan, but it’s a step in PETA’s direction.

This is a time of transition though, as even the OG defender of peace silk, Stella McCartney, is making further change. After finding difficulties with the quality and quantity available, the label is exploring other options, namely, spider silk. Thanks to the innovative heroes at Bolt Threads, a man-made, minimal impact silk alternative is making headway. MicroSilk mimics silk made by spiders without involving any living creature — the vegan dream. 

It’s an exciting and necessary space as we learn more about the effects our preferred natural fibres have on the planet. According to the Higg Index, a tool which measures and scores sustainability, silk has one of the worst impacts on the environment. Compared to cotton (another natural option receiving a lot of flack) the production uses more water, creates more pollution and emits more greenhouse gases.

At the moment, it’s a case of choosing the best option for you and grading it via your gut. A petroleum-based polyester option may use less water than silk (whether silkworm-friendly or not), but the decision to buy a dress that will last one season and spend the rest of eternity wreaking havoc doesn’t sit well with me. We’re getting there though — these scientists are doing us right.

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