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  • January/February/March 2010
  • The Magic of Silk... at What Cost?
  • The Magic of Silk... at What Cost?

    The Magic of Silk...

    At What Cost?

    Who can deny the beauty of a well woven piece of silk fabric or the intricately embroidered designs that skilled hands have created from silk thread, each triangular fiber refracting the light to produce a natural shimmer? Or the fact that silk garments are uniquely cool in warm weather, yet provide insulation in the cold? And what about silk clothing's venerable place in Asian culture? Doesn't every Indian bride dream of a silken sari? The sheer magic of its production from the insect realm to fabric is fascinating. For most of us, silk is appealing if not enthralling.

    There's another side of silk, though, one which people concerned about upholding the principle of ahimsa (nonviolence) must consider: All the wondrous qualities of silk come at the price of literally billions of silkworms, all of whom are raised and killed in order to harvest their valuable cocoons.

    For people trying to live as compassionate a life as possible, there are alternatives. So-called "ahimsa silk" or "peace silk" is made only from cocoons discarded after the moth has naturally emerged. It is marketed and sold by a small number of companies and is an option which some Hindus may find acceptable. Even here though, doubts are justly raised about whether such silk should be called "nonviolent."

    Animal rights groups recommend synthetic fibers as a more compassionate option over all silks. But synthetic textiles are produced from chemicals and petroleum derivatives; so--given all that we now know about fossil fuels' role in both global climate change and environmental pollution--are synthetic fibers really any less violent?


    Silk farming, called sericulture, is nearly as old as human civilization itself. Tradition says that the fourteen-year-old Chinese queen Hsi-Ling-Shih observed the remarkable fast growth of silkworms in the wild and brought a cocoon back to the palace. One day she accidentally dropped a discard cocoon into her tea. When she removed it, the cocoon began unravelling and the idea for silk fabric blossomed.

    Archeological evidence for the antiquity of silk production winds back to this same era. In modern Shanxi province, a silk cocoon, cut in half by a knife and dated to 3000-5000 BCE, has been discovered. The moth species was Bombyx mori, the one used in most silk production today.

    Across the Himalayas, use of silk in India also dates back to antiquity. References in the Rig Veda and Mahabharata refer to silk fabric being used for clothing, while the Ramayana mentions Sita's receiving silken vestments as gifts.

    Archeologists have discovered wild silk threads at Harappa and Chanhu-daro dating back to 2450-2000 bce. The species used in the production of the threads were Antherea mylitta (the modern day Tussar silk moth) and the Eri silk moth. It is presumed their cocoons were collected from the wild. The Chinese considered silk production a state secret, a breach of which carried the death penalty. But around 550 ce, live cocoons were smuggled into Central Asia. The Arabs brought sericulture to Africa and Europe 100 years later. By 1450, the silk industry was booming in Europe. Later the European industry declined and the center of the silk cultivation shifted back to the Orient, with China in the lead today. (See our timeline.)

    Today silk production accounts for less that 0.2% of total global textile output, a mere 3 ounces of silk for every 100 pounds of cloth. Though production is spread out over 60 countries, 90% comes from Asia and about 70% from China, where the industry employs one million people. Second-place producer India employs 700,000 households. The largest silk importing and consuming nation is India, where the majority of silk is woven into saris.

    Conventional Silk Production

    The dominant species used in sericulture is today, as it was thousands of years ago, Bombyx mori. Though once a wild animal (Bombyx mandarina is suspected to be the ancestor of the domesticated Bombyx mori), at this point it is entirely a domesticated species, blind and incapable of flight.

    The silk production process begins with tiny eggs, laid by the few female silk moths that have been allowed to emerge from their cocoons. Each lays between 200-500 eggs.

    In about seven days, the eggs hatch into 3mm-long larva. For several weeks the larva are fed around the clock on chopped mulberry leaves during which time they molt several times and grow to about 9cm in length. Over this period the silkworm increases in weight about 10,000 times.

    When they are ready to spin their cocoons, the worms are transferred to a fresh set of bamboo trays. Silkworms possess a pair of specially modified salivary glands called sericteries, which are used for the production of a clear, viscous, proteinaceous fluid that is forced through openings called spinnerets on the mouthpart of the larva. As the fluid comes into contact with the air, it hardens into thread which the worm uses to spin the cocoon. The diameter of the spinneret determines the thickness of the thread, which emerges as a long, continuous filament.

    After several days in the cocoon, it is harvest time. To unravel the thread as one single strand, the cocoon must be harvested before the pupa matures and emerges as a moth. If the moth naturally emerges from the cocoon, it cuts the filament, just as you might take a pair of scissors and cut up a ball of yarn.

    To prevent this, the pupae are killed by a process euphemistically called "stifling." This is generally done by boiling, steaming or baking. If water or steam is used, the cocoon must be worked immediately; otherwise, the pupae inside will putrify during storage and contaminate the filament. If baked and dried, the cocoons can be stored for later use.

    Once this is done, the end of the silk thread is located and the entire cocoon unwound, either mechanically or by hand. Each cocoon produces 600 to 900 meters of filament. Five to eight filaments are reeled together to make a single thread for textile production.

    By some accounts, 50,000 cocoons are required to make one silk sari. And to feed those silkworms requires a ton and a half of fresh mulberry leaves.

    Wild Silk Production

    Bombyx mori may be the dominant silkworm, but it is not the only species used in textile production. Antheraea pernyi, Anetheraea mylitta and Antheraea yamamai are used to make tussah or tassar silk (in China, India, and Japan, respectively); Philosamia cynthia and Philosamia ricini are used to make eri silk. Antheraea assama produces a golden yellow colored silk, known as muga. India is the only nation in the world that produces all three of these varieties. Collectively, these are known as wild silks, though semi-domesticated might be a better term. India produces over 1,500 metric tons of wild silk annually.

    The main difference between wild silk and domestic silk is where the eggs are laid and cocoons are formed. Tussah and muga silk moths are allowed to breed, lay eggs, and the larva then feed on leaves in trees and form cocoons which are later removed. This eliminates the tedious feeding and management of larva in baskets indoors. In most cases, the cocoons are then "stifled" in the same way as cocoons raised in feeding barns.

    What Is Ahimsa Silk?

    Ahimsa silk is different. To produce this silk, cocoons are collected after the moths have emerged. Most of this silk comes from the semi-domesticated silkworm species, but Bombyx mori can be used as well.

    A number of online and brick-and-mortar stores sell finished ahimsa silk, but there are two main US outlets for this fabric: Aurora Silk (www.aurorasilk.com) based in Portland, Oregon, and run by Cheryl Kolander; and Ahimsa Silk (www.ahimsasilk.com), based in Pune, India, and run by Leelavati Sabale. The latter firm is endorsed by People for Animal's Maneka Gandhi and proudly displays a testimonial from HH The Dalai Lama on its website.

    Aurora Silk markets both Bombyx mori-based ahimsa silk (in fact, Kolander's partner in India has the trademark on the name "Ahimsa silk" made from Bombyx mori in India), as well as silks described as "peace silk"' made from tussah, eri and muga cocoons. Kolander emphasizes that all her silks are produced and hand-woven by rural villagers, providing them with much-needed income.

    Ahimsa Silk sells a range of fabrics for fashion and furniture, including a line of shawls, scarves and stoles. All are made from cocoons naturally discarded by emerging silk moths, who live through the process. This silk is sourced from northeast India in the case of eri and muga, while tussah is produced in central India and Uttaranchal. Ahimsa Silk emphasizes the fact that it works together with People for Animals in training villagers so they can produce this sort of silk, which commands a price premium over conventionally produced silk.

    It should be noted that ahimsa silk producers are doing their best to provide assurances that their products do not involve violence to the silk moth or larva. But there is no certification scheme to reference, as there is with organic produce, for example. So for the consumer, it is a matter of trust.

    Questions about Ahimsa Silk

    Search for "ahimsa silk" on the internet and you can't help but notice that near the top of the results is an article titled "Ahimsa (Peace) Silk: Why I Think It Doesn't Add Up" by Michael Cook, who raises silkworms and works in silk in Texas. Cook's main problems with ahimsa silk are: First, where do you draw the line with violence? He points out that if you actually let all the female moths lay eggs, you have so many excess larvae on your hands that you can't feed them all and some end up dying.

    As Cook articulated to Hinduism Today, "It's a question of whether it's volitional or accidental, whether they are dying through neglect or dying through your action;...letting them breed and lay eggs that hatch and then starve or desiccate to death, I don't find that significantly different than killing them by choice."

    His other gripe is about terminology: If you see ahimsa silk marketed as "wildcrafted," implying that the cocoons have all been gathered from the wild, that's simply not the case, Cook asserts. That may have been true twenty years ago, but not in 2009. "It's like talking about bison that roam freely on the prairies unfenced, and then implying that the bison meat you buy at Whole Foods is free range, when actually it is ranched."

    This sort of terminology can get out of hand quickly: Cheryl Kolander has heard back from customers that they have seen Chinese silk being sold in New York City, claiming to be produced non-violently and even presented with counterfeit versions of Aurora Silk labels. Cook speaks of seeing tussar silk being marketed as inherently peace silk because, he paraphrases, "It's harvested from the jungles after the moths have emerged from the cocoons," when in reality those moths were raised specifically for silk. Just because a silk is not Bombyx mori doesn't mean it is ahimsa silk. Further discrepancies between description and reality can occur: Animal rights group Beauty Without Cruelty has publicly accused one silk producer in South India of promoting silk as ahimsa silk when the process they witnessed was just a twist on conventional silk production. Beauty Without Cruelty says they did see cocoons from which the moths were allowed to emerge, but what happened afterwards to the moths called the ahimsa description into question.

    "After emerging, the male and female moths are kept together for three hours to mate. The females are then segregated and placed in trays to lay eggs. The males are put in a refrigerator, kept semi-frozen, and trotted out repeatedly to mate. They are eventually thrown into a dustbin to die lingering deaths when their virility diminishes."

    Ultimately, Beauty Without Cruelty concludes, based on this expedition, that no silk can truly be called ahimsa silk "unless it is artificially made of yarns such as polyester."

    But such a position just opens more questions about pollution caused by oil-based fabrics and the very act of farming itself. Where and by what criteria do we draw the line between violent and nonviolent action?

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