Many people aren’t aware of how silk is produced, or even that it comes from a living creature. Having just spun their cocoons around their bodies for metamorphosis, billions of silkworms are boiled to death, unable to complete the remarkable transformation to a silk moth. They will never know the freedom of flight and fulfill their natural destiny of metamorphosis.
Chinese geneticists Shao-Yu Yang and colleagues have found DNA evidence suggesting that the silkworm domestication process may have begun 7,500 years ago. Silkworms are the larval form of the domesticated silk moth, Bombyx mori. The silk moth’s native habitat is northern China. They were domesticated from their wild cousin Bombyx mandarina, which still fly in their natural habitat today. The largest silk industry today is in India, followed by China and Japan.
The silkworms (technically a caterpillar) are the larval stage of the silk moth. They are fed their discriminating diet of mulberry leaves and eventually spin a pillowy, egg-shaped cocoon around their bodies in preparation for metamorphisms to a silk moth. It can take a silkworm up to three days to fashion the cocoon from one continuous, delicate thread of up to a mile long! (p.115 Bleating Hearts. Hawthorne) The cocoons are then boiled (or baked or steamed) in large vats by the millions to kill the worm inside. Then the long, continuous fibers from the cocoons are unwound and spun into thread, then woven into fabrics. Manufacturers don’t allow for the natural emergence of the moth as it damages the fibers. When the metamorphosis is complete, the moth secretes a liquid that dissolves the cocoon. The creature is killed in the cocoon to avoid blemishing the product.
“Humane,” “ahimsa,” or “peace” silks allow the worms to develop into moths and hatch from the cocoon. The hatching moth breaks the materials into short fibers, which are spun and woven into a silk that is more like raw silk (also known as noil). It is stubby and rough and not shiny. It is also much more expensive to produce, and because of all those reasons, the market for this alternative silk is extremely small. The insects are still “farmed” and crowded in small containers.
There is also a human cost as many silk factories treat their workers poorly and exploit children. The conditions are difficult, the silk fibers continually cuts into workers’ fingers, and reaching into the scalding hot water to check the cocoons is an common part of the job. In Bleating Hearts by author and activist Mark Hawthorne, he states, “India’s silk industry exploits hundreds of thousands of children, many as young as 5, who have essentially been sold into slavery.” He continues, “Children complain that owners beat and abuse them verbally.” (p.116 Bleating Hearts, Hawthorne)
I have been vegan for 28 years and silk and fish are issues very close to my heart as a wildlife lover. These are the two industries where we kill wildlife by the billions. To deny any creature the fulfillment of their destiny to becoming an individual who can fly seems beyond cruel to me. We prevent billions of beings the natural process of completing their life cycle, mating, and experiencing flying, all for an unnecessary, expensive, luxury fabric.
Some people might say, “they are just insects.” But insects are incredibly important to our planet. Insects pollinate many of our fruits, flowers, and vegetables. They help keep a balance in nature by keeping plants and other insects at stable levels. They are also the sole food source for many amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. We benefit in so many ways by sharing the planet with insects. We need insects. We inevitably do kill them inadvertently with some of our daily activities, such as driving, which is unfortunate, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to kill an insect if I can help it. If there is an insect in my path, I will step over them, if there is one in my house, I do my best to get them outside alive and well and if I have a choice to buy fabric that doesn’t hurt someone, I will pick the one that does the least harm. I want to allow life to continue and flourish whenever I can and avoiding silk is another way I can do this. It is completely unnecessary for me to buy silk as there are numerous other fabric options and I don’t need it.
When I inquired about the practices of their silk production with a popular fabric company who had ecological and other ethical practices touted on their website, they replied, “We buy from a couple of sources who are as reputable as we can find, but that being said, they all boil the worms. That is how it has been done since the use of silk was discovered.” It’s heartbreaking, and so unnecessary. Please don’t buy silk.