Is Silk Vegan?

Silk is synonymous with luxury. From fashionistas to designers, silk is known for being soft, fine, and lustrous. It is used in clothing, bedding, furniture, and even in paper products like wallpaper or stationary.

So, what is silk and where does it come from?

Silk is a viscous protein substance secreted from the glands of silkworms which then hardens on contact with the air, thus creating silk. It is gathered from the cocoon of a silkworm. To obtain a single, unbroken filament, the silkworm is killed before it can emerge from the cocoon so that the strands can remain unbroken. This is done by boiling, baking, or steaming the worm directly in its cocoon- alive.

So, is silk vegan? No, but don’t worry- there are alternatives.

FAQ: Are you really trying to say you care about silkworms?

Well, yes. Some well-intentioned people may think that avoiding silk is extreme, after all silk is produced by a worm and caring for worms can seem unimportant in the larger scale of animal use. But I think that misses the vegan point. The thing to understand is that veganism is an ethical philosophy which begins with the idea that we should not use animals in any way and avoid, to the extent that is possible and practical, all forms of use- even worms.

How is Silk Made?

Silkworms start out as an egg that hatches 10 days after its laid. They eat for 20-30 days, consuming large amounts of mulberry leaves. In fact, the silkworm will eat non-stop, and by the time they’re done they will have increased their weight over 10,000 times. During this time the caterpillar will molt through four changes of skin. Silkworms are incredibly delicate. Any loud noises, temperature changes, or even strong smells will cause them to stop eating mulberry leaves. If this happens, they don’t spin as much silk because they’re not as big. (1)

Once fully grown, the silkworm will attach itself to a twig and begin spinning a cocoon for protection, to allow for the development of the chrysalis (pupa). It secretes chemicals that, once they react with the air, solidify to form silk. The cocoon takes about three days to be fully complete. After the silkworm has spun its cocoon it will stay there for 16 days as it transforms. Once the transformation is complete, the worm will begin to excrete a fluid that dissolves a hole in the silk so that it can emerge. The new moth will then mate and the female will lay more than 350 eggs- after which the moths will die.

In nature, this cycle occurs once a year but in human breeding this cycle can be repeated up to three times in a single year. Humans have been raising and farming silkworms for so many thousands of years, the caterpillar has evolved to become completely dependent on humans. Selective breeding over generations has expunged the moth’s ability to even fly. Today, 100% of silkworms are now bred and raised in homes and on farms.

The method of obtaining silk thread from cocoon is known as Post-Cocoon Processing. This includes Stifling and Reeling. Stifling is the process of killing the cocoons. Good size cocoons of 8-10 days old are selected and dropped into hot water, during which they are continuously stirred with a rod which causes their outer portion to be loosened and removed in the form of long tapes and the end of the continuous filament is found. Reeling involves removing the threads from the killed cocoons. Four or five free ends of the threads are passed through eyelets and guides to twist into one thread and wound round a large wheel from which it is transferred to spools. The silk obtained on the spool is then called Raw-Silk or Reeled Silk. The waste outer layer or damaged cocoons and threads are separated, teased and then the filament are spun. This spun silk is called Spun-Silk. It takes 55,000 cocoons to make 2 lbs of silk. (2)

Related Reading: The Secrets of Silk Production

What About Ahimsa or Peace Silk?

Ahimsa, or Peace Silk, is silk that is processed from cocoons without killing the pupae inside and though some might think that this type of silk is vegan, it is not. The silkworm is raised just like conventional cultivated silk, up to the stage where the cocoons would be processed with heat (killing the silkworm). Ahisma silkworms are allowed to hatch and breed, and the silk is made from hatched cocoons. It might sound good so far- but not so fast:

“…each fertilized female moth will lay between 200 and 1000 eggs, averaging around 500. In some strains, the eggs will require refrigeration – without refrigeration, the living embryos within the fertilized eggs will wither and die over the course of a month or two. If they are refrigerated, they will hatch upon removal from refrigeration, in which case they have to be fed immediately, or they will die of starvation and dehydration. Either process will require the destruction of approximately 200 – 300 embryos or hatchling silkworm per moth, for any amount that exceeds what is required for the next crop. Instead of killing one pupa for the silk of the cocoon, it kills hundreds of caterpillars. In India, where the vast majority of Ahimsa silk is being raised, most silkworm strains are multivoltine. This means that the silkworms do not undergo refrigeration, and the eggs will hatch approximately two weeks after being laid. The ones that are not fed will die within a day of hatching, from a combination of dessication and starvation. In a batch of, say, 20,000 cocoons, this means that the next generation (if they were all raised) would be two and a half million, and the generation after that, three hundred twelve million. It’s just not possible to feed so many. While it may be true that the individual caterpillar that spun the cocoon didn’t die inside it, its offspring will have to be ruthlessly culled. Is it considered more virtuous to create conditions of wholesale starvation, to avoid killing the pupa quickly with heat?” (3)

How is Silk Listed on Labels?

It would be great if the labels on our clothing, bedding, and other textiles would list the animal that the natural materials came from, but sadly that isn’t the case. Not only are the labels ambiguous in terms of who the raw material was cultivated from, there are a plethora of names to describe the type and weave of the textile. This can confuse even the most well-informed consumer. I’ve listed some of the most common names you might find listed on a label, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. When the origin of a textile is in doubt, avoiding it in favor of a plant-based alternative may be the only solution.

Brocade, Canton Crepe, Charmeuse, Chiffon, China Silk, Doupinoni, Faille, Georgette, Matelasse, Noil, Organza, Peau de Soie, Pongee, Poult de soie, Silk Shantung, Silk Broadcloth, Silk Linen, Silk Satin, and Tussah Silk. Note that Chiffon, Georgette, Crepe, and Satin may also be made from synthetic fibers, so be sure to check the label for fabric content prior to purchasing.

What Are the Alternatives to Silk?

SoySilk is a silk-like fiber made from soybean residue that would otherwise be wasted during manufacturing. Invented by Henry Ford in 1937, this textile is eco-friendly in a variety of ways: it repurposes waste, it is fully biodegradable, and since the US is the largest worldwide exporter of soybeans, it is a locally made product. Much like animal-based silk, soysilk is cool to the touch, has a lovely drape, and is extremely soft. Finished soysilk has the familiar sheen of animal-based silk and is generally wrinkle-free. And it has little to no shrinkage when washed. Plus, since it is a natural fiber it takes dye very easily.

Lyocell is another silk alternative. This fabric feels like animal-based silk, but has properties that cool and warm the body as needed. It’s made from the naturally-occurring cellulose in wood pulp, a material that is generally thrown out.

Look for these fabrics at natural clothing retailers or through an online store.

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Your Daily Vegan is committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. The information and data presented in this article has been meticulously researched, and is based on the information available to me at the time of publication. Each guide is periodically reviewed for accuracy and updated as necessary. You can find the update date listed at the end of every guide. Please contact me if you find out-of-date or incorrect information.

1. ^ Wikipedia. “Silkworm.” Retrieved October 16, 2014

2. ^ Y. Romabai Devi. G.P Women’s College. “The Department of Sericulture.” Retrieved October 16, 2014

3. ^ Wormspit. “Peace Silk.” Retrieved October 22, 2014

This guide is authored by KD Angle-Traegner. Last update July 2016