Peace Silk: Ethical Fabric Or Sustainable Fashion Faux Pas?
As planet-friendly fashionistas, we’ve been trying on a range of sustainable fabrics.
Now we’re shimmying ourselves into a trending sustainable(?) fabric: peace silk.
Where does peace silk fit into the sustainable and ethical fashion conversation, and what even is it?
More importantly, how is peace silk different from regular silk?
The making of conventional silk is anything but soft and shimmery. It’s bad for the planet and worse for the silkworms after they meet their “quota”.
No wonder we’re seeing a rapid decline in biodiversity.
While peace silk provides a feel-better alternative for those of us who can’t get enough of this fabric, it comes with its own concerns.
We’ll unravel a pair of peace silk underwear (metaphorically, of course, because ethical underwear should last as long as possible!) to see what’s so peaceful (or not) about them.
For those who want to avoid using silkworms as fabric-producing machines altogether, be sure to read all the way through for some vegan peace silk alternatives.
1. WHAT IS PEACE SILK (OR AHIMSA SILK)?
What is peace silk?
To understand peace silk, it’s necessary to take a look at what not-so-peaceful silk is.
Silk is actually an animal byproduct, made from the cocoon filaments of domesticated silkworms (or caterpillars from the genus Bombyx moth species).
Traditionally, harvesting these cocoon filaments involve boiling the silkworm while it’s still alive. This makes it easier to extract and collect the silk fibers, but obviously means a very cruel and painful ending for the caterpillar.
Alternatively, Peace Silk® allows the silkworm to mature into a moth.
At which point, “the top of the cocoon is gently cut open to allow the developing moth to escape and to finish its natural lifecycle outside of the cocoon. It is a very peaceful, non-violent way of harvesting silk and a real wonder of nature.”
In other words, peace silk fabric doesn’t involve killing silkworms. However, as we’ll see later, it isn’t as simple as that.
What is ahimsa silk?
Quite simply, ahimsa silk = peace silk.
India is one of the most common places for peace silk production, so it’s no surprise that peace silk is sometimes referred to using the Hindi word for non-violence: ahimsa.
Peace silk (ahimsa silk) is known as eri, tussar, and muga silk, too! These indicate different species of silkworm, and are actually a better way to distinguish truly peaceful silk.
2. IS PEACE SILK ETHICAL?
How is peace silk made?
To those asking, “Is peace silk ethical?”, be prepared for a complicated answer.
As if having several different names wasn’t confusing enough, the process by which peace silk is produced adds another level of complexity to that super-silky scarf.
Generally speaking, here’s the standard process of sericulture (silk production):
- Eggs from previous mature silk moths are selected based upon appearance and the presence of any diseases.
- The chosen domesticated silkworms (Bombyx mori) hatch, and larvae are fed mulberry leaves for about 30 days (hence yet another commonly used name, “mulberry silk”).
- The silk worms are placed on mats, where the spinning will take place.
- This process lasts a week, during which a cocoon of silk spanning about 900 meters will be produced. While this may seem like a lot, it requires around 2,000 silkworms to produce a pound of silk.
This is where things get hazy because different manufacturers have different ways of extracting the fiber and saving the silkworm.
Unfortunately, the general process in which the Bombyx mori larvae’s head secretes the cocoon material makes any freeing escape impossible for most moths.
If the moth were to freely escape, it would break the secreted filaments, making the silk difficult to spin into a fabric.
Put into layman’s terms, a silkworm produces a single long strand of silk.
Any cut—whether by the moth or the processor—would mean several disconnected strands of silk, making for a tedious manufacturing process.
Textile experts at Sewport state “not much credence is given” to the claim that harvesting silk without killing silkworms is possible.
With the Bombyx mori silkworm, anyway.
What is eri silk?
Some producers paint a different picture, one in which the silkworm matures into a moth and simply flies off and leaves the cocoon to be spun like wool.
This is referring to eri silk.
Eri silk is made by the Samia ricini caterpillar, commonly found in Assam, India.
Instead of mulberry leaves, eri silkworms are fed castor leaves.
Unlike Bombyx mori, their cocoon forms naturally with a hole at the top, allowing them to fly out once they’ve matured (without damaging the filaments) and live as a happy little moth.
What is wild peace silk?
To add yet another type of silkworm to the conversation, wild peace silk refers to tussar silk produced from the Antheraea mylitta silkworm.
Instead of munching on mulberry leaves, they feed on local Indian trees in the wild (hence the name).
In fact, most of the production process can happen outside in the wild. Like eri silk moths, they can fly away and continue their lives after producing a cocoon.
What about organic peace silk?
Conventional silk production using Bombyx mori silkworms tends to use a lot of agricultural inputs to grow the mulberry trees, and more still during the process of hatching eggs and spinning the cocoon.
Mulberry trees in general use a lot of fertilizers and pesticides.
When you consider that 3,000 cocoons are needed for one yard of fabric and one tree produces just 100 cocoons, assume a lot of chemicals are used.
When Bombyx mori silkworms are brought into an artificial environment to lay and hatch eggs, they produce around 300-400 eggs at a time(!!!), and often die right after laying them.
As the caterpillars are fed—like nearly all animals that are raised for human purposes—they’re fed a lot.
Over the course of six weeks, they’ll become 10,000 times heavier by the time they’re ready to spin a cocoon.
To better control the process, producers will oftentimes use hormone disruptors and chemicals (like methoprene) to lengthen their cocoon-making time and yield more silk.
Alternatively, organic peace (and wild) silk production allows the baby silkworms to naturally eat what’s available outdoors, meaning they only grow four times bigger.
While spinning their cocoon in controlled conditions (namely, adequate temperature), they aren’t exposed to any chemicals. Once the cocoon is finished, the silkworm metamorphoses into a beautiful silk moth.
Not only is the organic production of silk free of fertilizers and pesticides, but the water used during fabric processing is free of heavy metals, which are typically used to make silk heavier in conventional production.
Instead, the only things used to wash and process the silk are natural soap and occasionally hydrogen peroxide (approved in organic agriculture).
While there are no third-party certifications to identify peace silk, there are several to help identify organic silk:
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): The go-to certification for all things organic, including silk.
- OEKO-TEX: Ensures the silk was processed without harmful chemicals but doesn’t necessarily indicate that no chemicals were used in the early stages of farming.
- CERES has recently certified its first silk company for use of regenerative agricultural principles.
Unfortunately, there is no certification for organic silk that’s also peace silk, and it’s important to realize that organic silk doesn’t always mean peace silk.
Is peace silk cruelty free?
Using an animal to satisfy any type of human-oriented goal always comes with some degree of ethical concern.
Silk is no exception.
Take the domesticated Bombyx mori moth: Throughout the years, its ability to fly, see, or respond appropriately to predators has been bred out to make them easier to control.
Even in the case of generic Peace Silk®, simply cutting the cocoon to allow the moth to escape has limited success, as the moths typically die shortly after emerging.
When it comes to selectively choosing what moths to breed and eggs to raise, PETA presents yet another ethical concern:
“After they have laid their eggs, female moths are crushed to death and their bodies are checked under a microscope for diseases. If any disease is found, the eggs are destroyed. Male moths are simply discarded after they mate.”
Is peace silk ethical?
While it is possible to ethically source peace silk, it is difficult to feel fully comfortable with the ethics of the peace silk industry generally.
If you’re concerned about the welfare of the moths and environment, wild peace silk or eri silk are the best options.
Additionally, silk production has also been associated with negative impacts on the farmers and silk reelers. Peace silk doesn’t necessarily address these concerns
Organic silk is another way to source silk that’s more sustainable and creates a better environment for the producers, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the silk was otherwise produced ethically.
If you want something truly ethical, a vegan alternative that’s ethically produced may be the way to go (read more on this below).
3. WHAT IS PEACE SILK USED FOR?
Clothing is undoubtedly what we think of when we think of silk.
For our wardrobes, peace silk yarn is valued because it has a great drape, keeps us cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather, and absorbs dyes well.
In western culture, it’s found in luxuriously smooth lingerie, robes, nightgowns, blouses, pillowcases, evening wear, and sport coats.
However, its most common use is actually in Indian saris, because India manufactures most of the world’s peace silk.
When wearing peace silk clothes, you’ll enjoy high durability, moisture-wicking comfort, breathability, and, of course, silky softness. But, don’t expect much stretch in that silk blouse.
Clothes aren’t silk’s only application though.
Silk is valued because it is the strongest natural textile made through natural processes. This makes it a chosen fiber for many non-clothing applications, like in medical bandages, parachutes, and even bicycle tires.
While silk is biodegradable, when it’s dyed with chemicals or blended with synthetic fabrics, it might hinder its decomposition process.
4. PEACE SILK VS REGULAR SILK
We’ve gone over the difference in how peace silk is made compared to regular silk but is the final product any different?
Is peace silk as shiny as normal silk?
So-called “peace” silk spun from the cocoons of the Bombyx mori silkworm has the exact same appearance and feel as normal silk.
But you might get the shine without the peace of mind that comes with true peace silk.
Eri silk is darker and heavier than conventional silk, making it a good choice for blending with other fabrics like cotton and wool. It’s also stronger, darker, heavier, and more elastic.
Wild silk (tussah silk), on the other hand, is more coarse and much darker than conventional silk. It isn’t as smooth and doesn’t have the same luster either.
Muga silk is a less-common type of wild silk that also grows in the Assam state of India.
Unlike tussah silk, it does have a yellow, shimmery texture. It’s extremely rare (so difficult to find a peace silk version of) and a valued material for sarees designed for special occasions.
How to tell if it is peace silk?
While there are some visual and tactile cues you can use when shopping to differentiate the better varieties of peace silk from regular peace and conventional silk, it’s not always easy, especially since we all do so much of our shopping online these days.
In such cases, when it comes to how to tell peace silk apart from conventional silk, you have to trust.
As there are no certifications, you’ll have to take a brand’s word at face value. It’s best to look for as many details (cough, cough, transparency) as possible.
If you’re staring at an extremely shimmery silk shirt, you can probably assume it is not peace silk.
5. VEGAN ALTERNATIVES TO PEACE SILK
Is peace silk vegan?
Contrary to some sketchy marketing (AKA greenwashing) and general confusion, peace silk is not vegan.
It is still an animal byproduct and even the most ethical of peace silk can’t change that.
Remember, just because something is cruelty-free does not mean it is vegan.
Fortunately, for those of us who don’t like wearing animals or their products, dressing in a silky smooth way is still possible.
Here are some of the best vegan alternatives to peace silk:
- Lotus silk: Using the stem of the lotus flower, silk-like soft fibres can be produced. Common Objective shares more on this and provides a link to an ethical supplier
- Citrus Fiber Silk: Making innovative use of inedible citrus waste, Orange Fiber can create a silk like vegan alternative.
- TENCEL lyocell or modal fabric: These semi-synthetics may even be softer than silk. They’re made using a closed-loop process and not dyed/treated with chemicals. Fortunately many brands offer a Tencel clothing line.
- Econyl: As a sustainable version of nylon (which was designed as an alternative to silk), this fabric makes use of recycled fishing nets and the like recovered from the ocean to make a fully-regenerated fabric.
- Reclaimed Polyester: We know synthetic fabrics are generally a no go but many sustainable brands these days use reclaimed synthetics like Polyester which can look super silky (see image from sustainable brand, Kindom)
- LENZING EcoVero viscose: Made by the same producer of TENCEL lyocell and modal, this breathable fabric is soft, comfortable, and much more sustainable than traditional viscose or rayon fabric.
- Milkweed seed-pod fibers: This is a new one to hit the world of sustainable fashion, and while we aren’t seeing it used yet, it’s one to keep our eye on.
- Recycled silk: This option isn’t vegan per se, but is an ethical/sustainable alternative to virgin silk.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON PEACE SILK
For a name that includes the word “peace”, finding out whether or not this smooth fabric is actually peaceful proved to be fairly difficult.
Simply put, not all peace silk involves happy little silkworms holding hands and singing kumbaya as they mature into moths and fly to freedom.
Eri silk and wild silk are the best bets at getting real peace silk, so double check to see what you’re actually buying from your favorite sustainable fashion brand.
And if you want to keep your closet totally animal-free, consider a vegan silk alternative instead. Or, to shop with our planet in mind, check out a thrift store for some second-hand silk.
While they’re small and living in a far-away place, supporting these little silkworms is a good way to cast a vote for a world that’s more ethical and sustainable.
Shopping for fabrics that don’t unnecessarily kill these critters, is just one of many things we can do to help protect and increase biodiversity in the world.
Time to pass the peace stick. What do you think of peace silk? Will this article cause a metamorphosis in your silk-buying tendencies? If so, feel free to pass it along to another silky sweetheart in your life!