Silk, a fabric so illustrious it became an adjective. For many of you this fabric may evoke memories of history lessons on the vast trading network of the Silk Road. Maybe also memories of your prom dress from the 90's? Either way, this fabric has a strong history aging back to at least 5,000 years ago. Let's go back to one fine day in 27th century BCE, shall we?
Chinese Empress XI Lingshi is credited with discovering this splendid textile. The story goes that she was sitting under a Mulberry Tree & a cocoon fell into her tea cup and unravelled itself, revealing a shimmering thread ("Silk"). That's right, silk is like the spider-man of the textile industry. To make us all feel a tiny bit more squeamish, silk fibers are in fact saliva produced by the silk worm to insulate itself until it is time for its transformation into a moth.
All that aside, what we are really here to talk about is the overall sustainability of silk. Generally speaking, silk is considered a more sustainable fiber due to its cellulosic nature. Cellulosic is basically a fancy word for "derived from nature." As with any other fabric, though, there are a list of pro's and con's to be evaluated in determining its place in the sustainable fashion world.
Pro's of Silk:
- It is a renewable resource. Meaning, "all of silk’s byproducts are integrated back into the local ecosystem and economic system. The mulberry fruits are eaten, the wood is used for timber or fuel, the foliage is fed to cattle, extra waste is used as fertilizer, and lower quality silk is used as filling in silk products like duvets. Sericin, which is recovered from the wastewater, can be added to food, cosmetics, textiles, and pharmaceuticals." (Wicker, 2020)
- Done well, it is a Low Waste Process. The worms can eat the mulberry leaves. The mulberry tree is resistant to pollution and easy to cultivate. The Bark has medicinal properties and the fruit of the tree can be used as natural dye. (Farr, 2020)
- It can biodegrade in soil or water. Some uses include to produce mulch, compost and hence soil. ("Silk")
- Silk is flame retardant
- It has antibacterial properties. The properties found in the cocoon remain in the fibers and yarns to defend from spread of bacteria.
Con's of Silk:
- Most silkworms are killed in their cocoons before maturing
- Uses a lot of fresh water in production, more than any other fiber (Wicker, 2020)
- Production releases a lot of Greenhouse Gas. Silk farms have to be kept at a certain humidity and temperature. Many farms are located in high temperature locations and have to use Air Conditioning/ Temperature control which, consequently generates large amounts of energy emission. The cocoons are steamed to be dried out after harvesting, which can be done by burning mulberry wood, but often times is done with coal. (Wicker, 2020)
- Low Yield, High Price. Some estimate only thirty-five pounds of silk come from one acre of mulberry trees. (Environmental Impact).
Like most ethical issues in fashion, this one isn’t really quantifiable. Whether you consider silk ethical depends on your priorities: preserving tradition and supporting rural artisans, or wearing only animal-free products. We could definitely use more transparency around how and where silks are made, but that’s no different than every other fabric, including industrialized ones like polyester and rayon/viscose.
As always there are good, better and best practices for harvesting, producing and finishing silk products! The more care taken at each step ensures a more sustainable end result. You can shop our USA Made Silks Collection here. The use of natural dye's keeps the fabric biodegrade-able.
Let's keep taking those steps toward educating our selves so we can help create a brighter, more sustainable future.
Until Next Time,
“Silk .” CFDA, cfda.com/resources/materials/detail/silk#:~:text=Generally%20speaking%2C%20silk%20is%20considered,energy%20than%20many%20other%20fibers.&text=Sericulture%20is%20the%20production%20of,wild%20silk%20is%20an%20alternative.
Farr, Alexis. “Material Guide: Is Silk Sustainable?” Good On You, 14 Oct. 2020, goodonyou.eco/is-silk-sustainable/.
Wicker, Alden. “Why Does Silk Have Such a Bad Environmental Rap?” Ecocult, 24 June 2020, ecocult.com/why-does-silk-have-such-a-bad-environmental-rap/.
“Environmental Impact.” Silk, globalcommodities-silk.weebly.com/environmental-impact.html.