Wrap me up in… vegan silk? Surely that sounds nice, but is silk vegan?
Garments that have been made from silk are on the no-no list for the same reason leather is. And, just like with leather, silk can be a tricky garb to side step.
But why is silk not vegan? And are there any alternatives to traditional silk?
Let’s take a deeper dive in the lustrous fabric that has dazzled humans for millennia.
First, What is Silk?
Silk is a natural fiber, of which some can be transformed into woven fabrics. The raw silk itself comes from specific insect larvae that produce it in order to create cocoons. The most prized silks come from the cocoons of the mulberry silkworm.
Silk gets its sparkly glistening appearance from the triangular structure of the fibers, which catches light at various angles.
There are a variety of insects that produce silk, but typically, moth caterpillars are the silk masters that the textile industries use in their manufacturing of the fine fabric.
Silk is also produced by bees, wasps, ants, silverfish, beetles, flies, and spiders, but none of these are used for production of the silk that you find in shops around the world.
How is Silk Made?
To answer the question – is silk vegan friendly – let’s take a look at how silk is made.
First the female moth lays around 400 eggs. The eggs hatch to form silkworms that feed on mulberry leaves, eventually they release a silk fiber that forms a netting to hold itself.
The silkworm spins the filament the length of one mile and it encloses itself inside a cocoon. The amount of usable silk from each cocoon is minimal, and because of this, around 2,500 silkworms are needed to make one pound of raw silk.
The cocoons are then boiled alive to kill the silkworm pupa, and then the outside end of the filament is located and unwound onto a reel. At this stage it is known as raw silk.
Finally, silk is made from a satin weave, which gives it the smooth sheeny feel and appearance.
If you want to learn more about the silk making process I’d suggest this video on how it’s made in China.
Silk History 101
The history of silk goes back a long way. As with everything else that has been created on Earth, the Chinese did it first.
Silk production began in ancient China six thousand years ago, and it stayed within the Chinese domain until the opening of the Silk Road in 114 BC.
The Chinese used silk in a variety of ways, such as the upper classes whom used it for writing on. Clothing made from silk was used to distinguish the different strata of social classes. The vivid fabric was a flag that showed the importance of the person wearing it.
The cultivation of silk next emerged in Japan around 300 AD. In 552 AD the Byzantine Empire obtained silkworm eggs and began to cultivate and manufacture their own silk.
During the crusades, silk was brought to the Italian states, and the result was the exporting silk to the rest of the continent. By the Middle Ages in Europe the spinning wheel was created. In the 16th century, France jumped into the mix and created a flourishing silk trade.
The big change in silk manufacturing came during the industrial revolution because of innovations like the Jacquard loom which increased the efficiency of production.
China regained their position of being the dominant cultivating nation in the 20th century though.
With the rise of other fabrics such as nylon and polyester which are easier and cheaper to produce, silk has reverted back to its original role as mainly a luxury good.
Silk or Satin?
So, since silk isn’t vegan because it is derived from the silkworms, then satin is a good alternative, right? Well, it’s not that simple.
Silk is sometimes confused with satin and jumbled up into a mess of misinformation.
First, to clarify, silk is a natural fiber, and satin is a type of weave.
Any satin material can be made from either natural fibers like those produced by the silkworm, or from synthetic fibers from materials such as polyester.
Of course, like other synthetic materials, these fabrics are not biodegradable, and thus become problematic for the planet. Silk itself is a burden in an eco-health sense. The entire process, from early cultivating to the finished product is problematic. It has a poor ranking on the different index scales that measure the toll that different materials have on the environment.
Vegan Silk – Is It a Viable Option
So, do vegans have silk options? And is there enough variety of high quality vegan silk available?
Vegan silk options have improved much over time. Science and brands alike have gotten more and more creative with their innovations.
Therefore there are various types of vegan silk available on the market from a number of respectable brands.
What is Vegan Silk Made Out Of?
A wide range of materials across the spectrum from many viable options are used to create vegan silk. This includes sourcing materials from natural resources like fruit, trees and flowers, to creating and using technologies that mimic spider webs to produce fabric, but without the spiders.
Microsilk is a product from a silicon valley start up named Bolt Threads. They create their fabric with less of an impact on the environment than traditional textile production.
The durable fibers that they’ve created have strength and elasticity, classic features of a spider’s silk. It’s already being developed into an array of products. Stella McCartney has even partnered with Adidas to create a women’s tennis dress that is completely biodegradable and made from Microsilk.
The future looks bright for this high-tech vegan silk option with both strength and sheen.
Plants such as flowers can be used to create a natural vegan silk, and Lotus Silk is probably the best example.
Lotus Silk was first used to create the monastic robes used as offerings to the Buddha.
The fabric is created from the delicate fibers of the lotus stem, it was first produced in Myanmar, and is now made in the cottages of Vietnam on a smaller level.
Nowadays, it is said to be a luxury fabric of sorts with a heft price tag. Lotus Paradis is a brand that cranks out a wide variety of women and girls’ apparel, and also virus masks.
Tencel aka Lyocell
Another exquisite fabric that has already saturated the market with products from every walk of life, is Tencel, which will sometimes be called Lyocell. From the world of fashion to more practical items like baby strollers, pillow cases, and bed sheets. Marks and Spencer and Net A Porter both have options for this flexible vegan silk choice.
Cactus Silk aka Sabra
Cactus Silk, also known as Sabra, has been the hot fabric for interior designers due to its versatility and because it’s incredibly sturdy and doesn’t crease easily.
Myriad colorful, plush, and comfy pillows are available in this fabric on the market. So, they are easy to find, but items produced with this fabric fall in the luxury range with steep price tags due to the fact that they are often handmade in Morocco.
A simple google shopping search will bring you into a virtual bazar of homeware like pillows and rugs, and also some cozy items like pajamas.
As mentioned before, fruit including banana, pineapple and orange, are a few of the powerful flora that vegan silk can now be made from.
Orange Fiber is a company out of Italy that are creating a sustainable fabric from the by-products of citrus juice. This brash new brand has teamed up with a global leader in wood-based fibers to make a unique Lyocell fiber made of orange and wood pulp.
The raw materials come from Sicily, and the final fabric is spun at a factory in Spain. Items from these clever textile innovators can be found at Salvatore Ferragamo, H&M, and E. Marinella.
These fabric makers will surely have a wider variety of products in the future, along with the other manufacturers in the fruit tree sector of these new vegan silks.
Vegan Silk Wrap-up
So when it comes to vegan silk options on the market, there are plenty, and the industry seems to be growing each year.
There are quite a few sources available and lots of new technology being developed, and the varieties and uses of these more sustainable fibers will go far and beyond expectations in the bright future of vegan silk.