The Ultimate Guide To Vegan Silks

Silk: the single strongest fibre known to man, second only other than spider silk, worth a staggering $3.03 billion a year, (though only 0.2% of the global fibre market), and a staple fibre for humankind since the Neolithic period, 8500 years ago. Strong, tough, versatile, flexible and heat respondent to cool and hot temperatures. A fantastic material. But not vegan. As much as it has helped form trade routes and shaped history, exploitation lies at its heart, and so does animal cruelty

So why isn’t silk Vegan? 

For those unaware, silk comes from silkworms- caterpillars of several moth species belonging to the genus Bombyx. The silk is secreted in liquid form from glands in the head, and it is that with which they spin their cocoons from metamorphosis into butterflies in its pupa stage. As a result, a single filament can be as long as 1600 m long, making it so desirable to weave.

Though it can be harvested from the wild, the majority of commercially available silk comes from commercial farms. Generations of selective breeding have rendered these butterflies flightless now, disfiguring them. To seal their fate, these pupa are then boiled alive in the cocoons to stop the development, and collect the silk before they naturally break from the cocoons as butterflies. For just one gram of silk thread, 15 silkworms are killed; for 1lb 3000; and for one silk sari, 10,000 are killed.

Speaking as a vegan myself, we tend to avoid any use of animal products, as we don’t see it as our right or place to interfere with and exploit other creatures, let alone end their lives needlessly. We leave animals be in every way possible, extending from the food we eat, to the clothes and materials we wear, our entertainment, and the products we use on our bodies. At the heart of this is Anti-humanist philosophy- the rejection of Humanism- or Anthropocentrism, the belief that human beings are the central or most important entity in the universe. Therefore, if they are our equals, we don’t see them as inferior and fair game to exploit. So though insects don’t have a central nervous system and don’t feel pain in the same way that humans do, this doesn’t exclude them from our consideration. We don’t partake in their killing or exploitation.

Other than silk not being vegan this industry has quite the devastating impact on humans and the environment. Read the rapport by The Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc. (CFDA) here.

Before I show you the alternatives, let’s just look at the variants of silk- not all silk is as cruel as the industry standard, and for those looking to minimise their impact, rather than cut silk completely, these could be a good alternative for you. As we must always remember, sustainable fashion and veganism to a degree, are a privilege and inaccessible for many on a budget. So we see you and we respect that. As a Textile Design student myself,  studying through a pandemic, unable to work, I for one, completely understand that compromise of ethics myself.

Silk Variants

Organic Silk

Certified under the Global Organic Textile Standard, no pesticides, insecticides or harsh chemicals are used on the Mulberry leaves that the silkworms eat, and those two, are kept from the caterpillars and in producing the finished cloth.

In contrast, Manure-based fertilizers used in the production of non-organic silk, can lead to eutrophication. Eutrophication is the process of nutrient loaded water contaminating local water supplies- primarily groundwater, leading to harmful algae blooms, dead zones, and fish kills. This is especially an issue in India, which provides subsidies for fertilizers and electricity for silk production.

Wild Silk

Championed as the most natural and environmentally friendly production of silk collection, wild silk, as the name suggests, is collected from cocoons of silkworms living in semi-autonomously in forests. They feed on less of a mono-culture than just mulberry trees, and naturally, are then organic. The quality of the silk reflects this lack of control variables, as does the broken fibres from the moth’s natural leaving of the cocoon fully formed. Be careful to check that your supplier does collect it at that stage, instead of killing it in pupa as every manufacturer is different.

Peace Silk

Famously vegan and principled fashion designer, Stella McCartney, favours Peace Silk, also known as Eri or Ahimsa silk. So why is it so popular among  sustainable fashion brands? Essentially, ​​the moths employed for the job- Samia ricini, naturally spins a cocoon with a tiny open end, from which they crawl out of after a month of development. So no moths are boiled alive in the process. This makes it a hit with Hindus, (“Ahimsa” is the Hindu word for “non-violence), Jainists, Buddhists and vegans alike.

Spider Silk

I had to give this fabric a quick mention, because to me, as a bio-material nerd, this is the most exciting fabric to come out of the last few years (though first experimented with almost 150 years ago). It is stronger than steel or Kevlar, and stretchy up to 40% of its normal length. Cruelty-free- by virtue of perceived painlessness, but incredibly time-consuming and spider labour hungry, at fourteen thousand spiders per ounce of silk needed, this is more one to marvel at than consider commercially for now. Read more about it here.

Vegan Alternatives to Silks

Synthetic

Polyester

If you’re looking for sustainability, move swiftly on.  Derived from petroleum, this lightweight plastic fabric is extremely common in the fashion industry because of the cheapness and durability of the fibre. Polyester silk satin (satin being the type of weave) is what is used to replace silk, but compared to the real deal, this satin is rougher, less breathable, more brittle and heavier. Affordable, but to what true cost?

Rayon

Best known for its shape-shifting abilities, effectively mimicking silk, wool, cotton and others, this makes it a big hit in fashion. It is essentially purified cellulose fibres, from wood pulp, processed with different chemicals for the desired outcome, making it a semi-synthetic fabric. This results in three types- Viscose, Modal and Lyocell. It is Viscose that is used to create the silk alternative. Natural fibres, but an entirely unnatural, unsustainable and harmful chemical process.

Tencel 

TENCEL is a brand name version of Rayon, though the processing of the wood pulp is far more environmentally friendly. Additionally, it is less water, energy, and (harmful synthetic) dye hungry than cotton, a completely natural fibre. So how does it differ? 1- As long as it isn’t mixed with synthetic fibres like nylon for stretch, it is completely biodegradable. 2- It is pure white when produced, so no bleaching is necessary and undyed is always an option. 3- Tencel is made from sustainably sourced wood, while the 30% of rayon and viscose used in fashion is sourced from endangered and ancient forests. So it has no impact on increasing deforestation linked to Rayon. 4- According to Good On YouThe traditional viscose process is chemically-intensive, using harmful sodium hydroxide. Tencel replaces it with the NMMO process. The solution of N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide is more easily recoverable, and a closed-loop solvent system means almost no solvent is dumped into the ecosystem. Instead, it is recycled time and time again to produce new fibres and minimise harmful waste. Lenzing AG says the solvent recovery rate for their version is an impressive 99%.

So if you’re on a budget and going to go synthetic, consider TENCEL™ Lyocell.

Cupro Silk

Cupro is a silky fabric made from cotton waste, the tiny cotton fibres known as linter that are too small to spin. They are collected, dissolved in a chemical cuprammonium solution, – a mixture of copper and ammonium, then dropped into caustic soda, extruded through a spinneret to create strings, then immersed in a series of hardening baths that reconstruct the cellulose and remove the ammonia, copper, and caustic soda. This new ‘regenerated cellulose’ is then spun into fibre and a resulting thread.

So is it sustainable? Yes. To a degree. Much like Tencel and Modal, cupro is a plant-based material, and a waste product that is reused, so for that it is great. But we must not forget the intensive and harsh chemicals involved that, if disposed of improperly, can be toxic to the planet and people. So it is not entirely ethical or sustainable.

Bolt Threads- MICROSILK

Microsilk, by the biotech start up, Bolt Threads, is a fabric created to mimic silk, using proteins inspired by spider silk, and then processed into a fabric akin to spider silk and silkworm silk, without exploitation or harm done to either insect. Learn more about it here.

Yet to be commercially available as yarn, the company has worked secretly with a handful of designers since 2017, so if you want to invest in the material of the future, keep tags on Stella McCartney in particular – it’s her choice silk material going forward, after releasing a couple of successful garments using the fabric.

Plant-based Silks

Bamboo Silk

There are two ways of making bamboo silk- mechanical and chemical. Mechanical silk is created by crushing the stem of the bamboo, then using the plant’s natural enzymes to break down the pulp into cellulose fibres, which are then mechanically combed, pressed and rolled to make the fabric. The most labour intensive of the two, mechanical bamboo, is duly more expensive, though far more environmentally friendly than the latter.

Chemical bamboo, in contrast, uses the entire plant when harvested, it goes through a similar process as the mechanical, though artificial chemicals are used to break down the pulp into smaller fibres, and this is where dyes are added. The pulp is then spread out and dried on mesh, akin to paper making, then ground up, and spun into yarn that way.

Similar to silk, bamboo silk is insulating, thermo-regulating, breathable, and good for sensitive skin. Additionally, it is naturally antibacterial, thanks to the plant from which it comes.

Banana Silk

Textiles from banana plants have been around for centuries, having been used by Southeast Asian cultures from as early as the 13th Century. In the last couple of decades Banana Silk has been having a resurgence, and is now surprisingly widely available to consumers. Fibres are taken from the woody stalk of the plant, as you would linen. The silky long fibrous strands are extracted for the stalk, and then simply spun together to create a thread. Biodegradable, renewable and relatively environmentally harmless if the banana plants are organic, this is a great option. Inevitably, though, there is a human cost, which can be read about here. So you have to carefully consider and research the supplier that you buy it from if you go down this route.

Cactus Silk

Cactus silk, traditionally known as Moroccan Sabra,  is harvested by Moroccan Berber women,  from the Saharan aloe vera cacti in northern Morocco, and is a contentious fibre. The leaves are crushed, soaked in water for easier fibre extraction; washed, dried and then spun to create the thread. It is a sustainable silk option, because it can be grown in very arid landscapes without the use of much water at all, free from pesticides and fertilisers, and is not grown as a mono-crop.

It doesn’t have a romantic long history to it as we may love to believe, and it is rather a new fabric. If indeed it is real Sabra, not the dupe, acetate filament rayon, as is most commonly sold under the same name. For the real deal source it from a traceable company like ANOU.

Orange Silk

Pioneered by aptly-named Orange Fiber in 2014, this silk is produced, from, you guessed it, orange pulp. It has a rather secret process, but it follows the steps of its contemporary plant silks. Using patented technology, they extract cellulose from discarded orange peels, which they then form into a fibre, spin, and then weave to create the silk. This takes advantage of the 700 000 tons of citrus byproduct produced in Italy alone every year, saving it from landfill and transforming it into a usable product. It is an industry favourite, used in collections by Salvatore Ferragamo, H&M and E. Marinella among others, it has won H&M’s Global Change Award. Keep an eye on this as it becomes increasingly more affordable.

Pineapple Silk 

Often combined with mulberry silk or banana silk or cotton, this fabric is hard to come by in its raw form, but that is not to say it is impossible. Pina has been used for centuries in the Philippines and is known as the Queen of Philippine Fabrics. To produce it, the leaves are cut from the plant, the fibres stripped out, hand scraped, and then knotted one by one in a labour-intensive process, to form a continuous filament, ready to be hand woven into Pina Cloth. The resulting fabric is soft, durable and resistant to moisture, so it is commonly used to create a Barong Tagalog, a traditional long sleeved embroidered formal shirt, part of the national costume of the Philippines.

To find pure Pina cloth, naturally, the most sustainable option, source it from one of the oldest producers in the country- Dela Cruz House of Pina at New Busuang, Aklan. They don’t have a website, but contact Rhodora Dela Cruz – Sulangi, by calling +6336 262 3267, or email dchpina@kalibocable.com.ph

Ramie Silk

Ramie, otherwise known as the Chinese nettle plant, is the plant behind Rami silk. Used for upwards of 6000 years in Ancient India, China and Indonesia, and even for mummy cloths in Egypt during the period 5000-3300 BC, this linen-like fibre is made from the inner stalks of the plant, and is therefore classified as a cellulose fibre. To access this, the artisans must first remove the outer bark, strip the long fibres out, and then soak in lye bath for 24 hours to de-gum. What you are then left with is raw rami.  After this treatment, the fibres are put into neutralising baths, then rinsed, oiled and dried.

So though chemically processed, Lye has a low environmental footprint compared to other synthetic finishes, because it is a byproduct of the chemical industry and so you can rest easy with this silk.

Cotton Sateen

Essentially, just cotton woven in a satin weaving pattern, to create a silkier feel to it. I needn’t go into the environmental impact of cotton, as that is well documented, see here for a reputable write-up,  but it still holds strong in being a natural, biodegradable fibre. If you must buy cotton, shop ​​for organic cotton, Fairtrade cotton, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) and the REEL Cotton programme. But as always, if you’re on a budget, don’t feel guilty for compromising!

Lotus Silk

Lotus silk is one of the most expensive and exclusive fabrics in the world, due to the complexity and labour-intensive nature of weaving lotus fibres. They are cultivated in Cambodia, Myanmar, and, more recently, Vietnam, by a few highly skilled small scale artisans in smaller-scale cottage industries.

The process begins by harvesting the stalks from April to October, and then processing them within 24 hours into thread for weaving, while they are still wet and elastic, and before they become brittle. The real cost comes from the quantity of silk needed to make a length of fabric. A scarf for instance, requires silk that can take two months to acquire from the crop. It is for that reason that the final product can cost 10 times as much as regular silk.

Watch a fantastic video on the process here.

So if you can afford it, support small!

Silk-cotton or Kapok Silk

Last but not least we have the Kapok fabric, from the seed pods of the ​​Kapok Tree also know as also Java cotton tree , ceiba tree, silk cotton tree, or Java kapok tree. Whatever you call it, this plant is native to the Americas and to Africa, and has successfully been cultivated in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, where the tree is grown for its silky seed pods.

In order to make the fabric, these pods are collected from the ground where they fall or are cut down from the tree; smashed open with a mallet, and then the seeds and the fibres are separated by stirring in a basket, whereby the seeds fall to the bottom of the basket. The resulting silk cotton or kapok fibres are then usually blended with polyester, cotton or the natural fibre Sisal to enhance its properties and make it easier to spin into a yarn.

So in terms of sustainability, with no chemical process, and biodegradable cellulose based fibres, it is one of the best silk alternatives out there. Just make sure you buy sisal or organic cotton blend, not polyester.  Additionally, it is silky soft and dry to the touch, anti-moth, anti-mite and has insulation properties comparable to down.

So now that you know your options, choose wisely, and best of luck on your sustainable fashion journey! Make sure to tag us on Instagram if you end up using any of these fabrics!