Going vegan isn’t just about food, fur, and leather. It’s important for our textiles to be cruelty free as well. Have you ever asked how is silk made, or what silk is made of? If you’ve ever looked into it, you’ll know why silk is not vegan.
And if you haven’t looked into it? Well, we’ll tell you.
What’s the Problem With Traditional Silk?
Silk is renowned for its beauty, softness, lustre, and strength.
In fact, Mongol warriors used to wear silk undershirts into battle, not to prevent chafing, but because arrows had a difficult time piercing the silk fabric. Even if the arrow’s tip pierced the body, the silk’s tight weave made it easier to pull the arrow out, and could help to stanch the wound.
Today, traditional silk is used in clothing, scarves, bags, hoisery, and more. It’s not only strong and soft; it’s also light and breathable. Silk can keep you warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. It’s a luxury product and a status symbol.
But it’s not vegan.
Where Does Silk Come From?
According to one legend, an empress of ancient China was enjoying a cup of tea underneath a tree. A silk worm cocoon fell out of the tree into her cup. As she picked the cocoon out of her teacup, the cocoon began to unravel into silk threads, which the empress realized could be spun into cloth.
Historically speaking, we know that the first silk production took place in China in the Neolithic period, in the Yangshao culture, some time around 4,000 BC. Silk production would remain exclusive to China until the Silk Road opened in 114 BC.
Silk is a protein excreted by the larvae of silk worms. The larvae create long strands of silk then use it to make the cocoons where they will transform into silk moths.
There are more than 500 kinds of silk worms, but the finest conventional silk is mulberry silk, which comes from the worms that live in mulberry trees.
The problem for vegans is that harvesting silk thread means boiling the cocoons and killing the larvae. It takes around 3,000 cocoons to create one pound of silk. And the silk industry puts out some 70 million pounds of silk per year.
That’s a lot of larvae and a lot of cruelty.
What About Peace Silk?
Can vegans wear silk products if they’re made from peace silk?
Peace silk, or ahimsa silk, is created nonviolently from wild, rather than domesticated silkworms. Instead of separating the silk from the larvae with boiling water, peace silk farms allow the moths to finish the pupal stage in the cocoon naturally.
Then, after the moths fly away, the empty cocoons are harvested.
Many consider peace silk, or ahimsa silk, to be a cruelty-free silk. At the same time, ahimsa silk is still an animal product, and still involves the exploitation of animals, even if the process is free of explicit animal cruelty.
Whether you wear peace silk is your choice, but is it a truly vegan silk? Strict vegans may still say no.
What About Organic Silk?
The categories of “organic” and “vegan” sometimes intersect, but they’re not the same thing. Organic means that a product is made without pesticides or genetic engineering. Vegan means that it’s made without harming or exploiting animals.
Okay, So What is Vegan Silk Exactly?
A lot of things, actually.
The term “vegan silk” covers a variety of natural and synthetic fabrics that approximate the look and luxurious feel of silk, without the cruelty and exploitation inherent in conventional silk production.
But again, just because something is cruelty free doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily good for the planet. Some vegan versions of silk are sustainable and environmentally friendly. Others…not so much.
We’ll talk more about this in a bit.
Are There Different Types of Vegan Silk?
There are a number of naturally derived vegan fabrics that are sold as silk alternatives. You might also find bioengineered vegan silk, which recreates the properties of silk at the molecular level, without involving silkworms. And there are synthetic fibers that look and feel like silk.
All of these can be considered vegan silk.
Here are a few vegan silk alternatives that you may have come across.
You might have heard about an exhibit of the magnificent garments woven from the silk of Madagascan Golden Spiders. Spider silk is one of the strongest, softest materials on earth, and it is beautiful. (1)
But we don’t need to tell you that it’s not vegan.
Spider silk is an animal product, and its extraction involves the exploitation of spiders. Although spiders aren’t killed for their silk (that wouldn’t make economic sense), the extraction process is forcible and unpleasant.
However, scientists have come up with a synthetic silk made from microbes that mimics spider silk on a molecular level. It’s not only vegan, it’s also sustainable.
Furthermore, synthetic spider silk can be used not only as one of many vegan silk alternatives, but it can also be tweaked to replace certain single use packaging plastics. Its strength and flexibility also make it a natural for suturing. (2)
And if that’s not enough, this vegan spider silk is stronger than either natural spider silk or other silk alternatives. (3)
It will probably be a while before we see synthetic spider silk fabrics in the consumer market. But the development has exciting potential in a number of fields.
The “art” in Art Silk stands for “artificial,” rather than “artistic.” Art silk is made from a variety of materials, but the most common is rayon. (4)
Rayon was one of the first silk alternatives. It dates back to 1855, when Frenchman Georges Audemars synthesized the fibers using a process called nitrification. He called the finished product rayon.
Thirty years later, Hilaire de Charbonnet, the Comte de Chardonnet created “Chardonnet Silk” using a similar process.
Then in 1894, Charles Frederick Cross, Edward John Bevan, and Clayton Beadle patented their version, which they called viscose.
Today’s rayon is a synthetic fabric made from wood pulp cellulose. It may also be made with bamboo pulp, cotton linter, agricultural byproducts, or even oranges.
Art silk is soft and luxurious like finished silk. It’s also completely vegan.
At the same time, though rayon is sometimes advertised as being natural and sustainable, the truth is, it’s not.
First, rayon is highly chemically processed. The raw material from which it was made may have been natural, but the resulting fibers really aren’t.
Rayon is slightly more biodegradable than polyester, but that’s not saying much, as polyester isn’t biodegradable at all.
Rayon silk is a boon to vegan fashion, as it’s created without harming or exploiting animals. But when it comes to the environment, this vegan fabric is like many other synthetic fabrics: resource intensive and polluting.
Orange silk is a brand new type of vegan silk fabric. You might have seen it associated with H&M’s Conscious Exclusive Collection, which featured clothing made from recycled and sustainable fabrics. It was also featured in the 2018/2019 Fashioned From Nature exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. (5)
This new fabric is innovative, to be sure. The raw material, for example, is citrus fruit waste, which would otherwise go into a landfill.
While it’s true that the citrus fruit waste is chemically processed into a polymer, it’s processed using a closed-loop system, which recycles and reuses the chemicals, rather than releasing them into the environment.
So, while the result is a product similar to rayon, its environmental impact is a lot smaller than that of traditional rayon.
Ramie is a shrub similar to the European nettle plant. Its fibres are white and lustrous, and look a lot like silk, though they’re not stretchy like silk fibres. Spun ramie is soft and strong, like silk yarn. Fabric woven from ramie is breathable, absorbent, and strong.
Unlike flax, which is the basis of linen, one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics in the world, ramie plants are perennials. That means that they have a lifespan of years rather than a single season.
Ramie is chemically processed to remove natural resins from the fibres, but the fibres themselves remain intact and form the basis of ramie fabric.
Ramie is vegan and also quite sustainable.
Lotus silk sounds like the vegan fashion holy grail. In many ways it is.
Lotus fibers come from the stems of the lotus flower. Production is completely cruelty free and vegan. What’s more, the strong lotus fibers require very little in terms of chemical processing. It also has a long and interesting cultural heritage. (6)
Unfortunately, at this time, lotus silk is only produced on a small scale by a small number of skilled craftspeople. It takes a long time to make, and can be up to ten times as expensive as regular silk.
Vegan fashion has taken notice of lotus silk, so it may only be a matter of time before there’s a flourishing lotus silk industry. But at this time, this sustainable vegan fabric remains an expensive specialty item.
Cupro is a superfine silk substitute made from recycled cotton cellulose. Although it’s not very breathable, it’s soft, stretchy, wicks moisture, and can keep you warm.
Cupro goes by many names, including Cuprammonium rayon, cupra, ammonia silk, and Bemberg.
The raw materials at the heart of Cupro are both vegan and recycled. However, Cupro production isn’t very environmentally friendly.
Production involves several types of highly toxic chemicals, which can cause severe environmental damage. Finishing involves another set of toxic chemicals.
So, although Cupro is made from recycled plant matter and is therefore vegan, it’s basically another type of rayon, with the same environmental problems of rayon.
Lyocell, also called Tencel, is another type of rayon. At the heart of Lyocell is plant pulp cellulose, which goes through a similar type of heavy chemical processing like rayon.
At the same time, Lyocell production doesn’t use carbon disulfide, which harms both textile workers and the environment. So, while Lyocell isn’t the most environmentally friendly fabric, it’s a bit better than some other types of rayon.
Pineapples are delicious and high in vitamin C. But they’re also a gift to the vegan fashion industry. You can use waste from pineapple production to make a tough and attractive vegan leather called Pinatex. And you can also use the same waste to make pineapple silk.
Pineapple leaves are very fibrous, and people have been using those fibres to create textiles for a long time. Pineapple silk production began in the Philippines in the 17th century, and has long been a favorite fabric of the Philippine elites.
Traditional pineapple silk production is quite environmentally friendly. First, the leaves are separated from the plant by hand. Then the fibres are scraped from the leaves, washed in water, and hung to dry. Once dry, the fibres are waxed, whipped, and knotted together end to end to form a single strand.
This strand is then woven into pineapple silk fabric.
This fully vegan silk is utterly sustainable. Moreover, it can be woven coarse or fine, to fit a wide variety of applications, including clothing, cleaning cloths, rugs, and more.
Bamboo Silk is another name for the viscose rayon made from bamboo fibres. Although it comes from natural raw materials, it’s heavily chemically processed and not as biodegradable as a truly natural fabric.
Silk isn’t vegan, and more’s the pity. While some vegan silk alternatives are eco-friendly, many aren’t that great for the planet at all.
However, if you do your research, you can find vegan fabrics that have many of the qualities that we love in silk, and which are gentle on the environment, too. And the more consumers demand fabrics that are both cruelty free and eco-friendly, the faster the commercial silk industry will work to provide real alternatives.
Save This To Pinterest!
About The Author:
Jess Faraday is a vegetarian from a family of vegetarians. A recent vegan, she wants to spread the word about the benefits of plant-based eating for health, for animals, and for the planet.
- Mark Brown | Eight Years and 2M Arachnids Later, Spider Silk Fabrics Go on Show in London | https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/sep/06/eight-years-and-2m-arachnids-later-spider-silk-fabrics-go-on-show-in-london
- University of Cambridge | ‘Vegan Spider Silk’ Provides Sustainable Alternative to Single Use Plastics | https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/vegan-spider-silk-provides-sustainable-alternative-to-single-use-plastics
- Jingyao Li et ali. | Microbially Synthesized Polymeric Amyloid Fiber Promotes β-Nanocrystal Formation and Displays Gigapascal Tensile Strength | https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acsnano.1c02944
- You Sew and Sew | What is Rayon? | https://yousewandsew.com/rayon/
- Victoria and Albert Museum | Fashioned From Nature | https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/fashioned-from-nature
- Charlie Floyd | Lotus Silk is One of the Rarest Fabrics in the World, but What Makes It So Expensive? | https://www.businessinsider.com/lotus-silk-most-expensive-fabrics-in-the-world-vietnam-2020-11