How is silk made today?

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Barrel of yellow cocoons

Silk is made by a number of different insects and all species of spider, who are not insects, they are arachnids, but that is a story for a different blog! However the silk humans have used for textile manufacturing for thousands of years, is made by an amazing little being, the mulberry silkworm.

The silkworm makes a cocoon to protect itself from predators when transforming from caterpillar to pupae to moth. This cocoon is made of the natural fibre that we call silk and is harvested by humans to make a variety of different items from clothing, to bedding to beauty products.

The beautiful life of a silkworm

silkworm on a leaf

When I was a kid I kept silkworms as pets and I loved them, I remember everything about them so clearly. The golden yellow eggs that would turn black if they were fertile and the tiny black baby caterpillars who would hatch out of them. I would feed them fresh mulberry leaves that I picked from a neighbours mulberry tree and watched them grown into cute, chunky white caterpillars. 

They grew so fast, after about a month they were 10 000 times the size they were when they first hatched! Then they would start spinning their beautiful, golden silk cocoons which would take them about three days and around 900 meters of thread to complete!

It was hypnotic watching them slowly swaying their heads back and forth while making their home, it always amazed me how they instinctively knew exactly what to do, all following pretty much the same process without being taught. What an amazing ability, I am quite in awe of the insect world.

Closeup of a moth on a finger

Once in the cocoon the magical transformation takes place from caterpillar to moth, and such a dramatic transformation at that!

In a short couple of weeks the stunning white moths would emerge, they were so fluffy and sweet, and so completely different to what they were when they started this process. Sadly, due to thousands of years of domestication, silk moths sadly cannot fly. But I guarded them fiercely and kept them safe from any potential threats. The usual predators, cats, spiders, little brothers! I(’m joking of course, my brother is very gentle with animals.)

Sadly they only lived a week to two weeks, enough time to find a mate and for the females to lay their eggs only for the whole process to start again. I always buried the moths after they died and had private funeral services for them, it seemed so cruel that their lives were so short, but I suppose it wasn’t short for them.

How is silk made – the science bit!

This is a science bit, it is short but if the technical side bores you skip this to the next heading!

Silk is made when the silkworm secretes fibroin, a sticky liquid protein, from two special salivary glands called sericteries. Pushed through an opening on the mouth called a spinneret, the twin pair of silk threads harden when they come in contact with air. The silkworm then secretes a bonding agent called sericin from two other glands to hold the two filaments together.

There we go, all done!

Is producing commercial silk cruel?

Woman sorting cocoons

This part may come as a surprise to many of you, but there is no getting around the fact that most silkworms are killed in order for us to use their silk. In fact silk production entails a level of barbarity that turns the stomach of any animal lover.

The reason for this is that in order for the moths to emerge from the cocoon they produce a liquid from their mouths that dissolves strands of silk to make a hole. This means the single strand of silk used to make the cocoon has been severed in many places.

To get around this, commercial silk operations apply what they call “stifling” treatments to the cocoon. This involves routinely killing millions of silk moths by dropping the cocoons into boiling water. This enables them to unwind the cocoon into a single, long thread.

Other methods of stifling involve dry heat, steam or sun exposure for a sufficient enough time (hours to days) for the pupae to be killed. The savagery of this kind of killing of a completely helpless being is quite staggering.

This is particularly upsetting when you take into account it takes around a thousand silk cocoons to make just one silk shirt. All those little lives lost so brutally for nothing but human vanity. It is totally unnecessary and in an age when there are so many options available to us, completely unacceptable. Silk is far more valuable to the silkworm than it is to us.

Is all silk clothing barbaric?

Many racks of cocoons drying

There is a product known as ahimsa silk, or peace silk. It is a method invented in the early 2000’s by Kusuma Rajaiah who is firm believer in Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings of non-violence.

His method involves wild moths who are bred and left to complete their metamorphosis. The moths emerge unharmed and the cocoon that is discarded by them is then used to create silk garments for human use.

Unfortunately no certification authorities exist to guarantee these standards are upheld and there have been many reports of conventional silk products being sold as peace silk.

Another issue is that from an economic standpoint, ahimsa silk is not as profitable. It requires an additional ten days in the process to allow the larvae to grow and the moths to hatch. In contrast, the conventional process of brutally boiling the moths takes about fifteen minutes. 

What you can do

Is silk ethical

As there is little way of knowing if the silk you buy is truly cruelty free, avoiding silk altogether is the only way of knowing you are not contributing to the suffering of the silk moth. 

Fortunately, there are so many other luxurious, natural products available, there is no need to fund the silk industry. Personally, I have never been keen on silk clothing, it has an odd sticky feel about it and even before I learned of the cruelty of the industry I wouldn’t wear it.

I realise many people don’t feel that insects are worthy of our ethical obligation, but I disagree. They are fascinating beings who value their lives, however short those lives may seem to us.

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