Is Silk Vegan? How Is Silk Made?

Is Silk Vegan? How Is Silk Made?



Okay, so I understand cutting out meat and
dairy and eggs, and I can even grasp honey,
leather, and wool. But silk? I mean, they’re
worms.
And we’re only taking the silk they make. So, what’s the big deal?
But it’s so soft and luxurious!
And it’s got such a luster!
But I’m-
But you-
Well it’s not like-
And-
But-
You make a compelling point, sir.
Hi it’s Emily from Bite Size Vegan and welcome
to another vegan nugget. With all the considerations
vegans must make, one that tends to be low
on the list is silk. The cruelty of meat,
dairy and eggs is painfully evident to anyone
who takes a moment to look into their production.
Even honey and wool, after some digging or
vegan-nugget-watching,
Yeah
are accepted as inhumane exploitative products. But what about silk?
How is it even made and why should vegans
be concerned?
Well to start off, the kind of silk production
we’re going to focus on today is that of
silkworms, but it should be noted that silk
is produced by a number of insects like Embioptera,
commonly known as webspinners, Hymenoptera
(bees, wasps, and ants), silverfish, mayflies,
thrips, leafhoppers, beetles, lacewings, fleas,
flies, and midges. Other types of arthropods
also produce silk, most notably various arachnids
such as spiders. Spider silk is experimentally
being used in the medical field to mend bones
and for military purposes to produce an alternative
to kevlar via inserting spider genes into
goats so that they excrete silk in their milk,
from which protective vests are made.
I am not making this sh*t up.
The silkworms responsible for the vast majority
of commercial silk production, are the Bombyx
mori domesticated and selectively bred from
the wild Bombyx mandarina. The earliest evidence
of silk and silkworm domestication dates back
over 5,000 years ago to 3630 BCE in ancient
China where sericulture, or silk farming,
was born. The Chinese emperors tried to keep
silk production secret in order to maintain
a monopoly, but by around 200BC sericulture
has already crossed into Korea and later Japan and India.
Now just a note, some of the statistics in this
video vary widely as various sources seem
to disagree as to the actual numbers and/or
are unclear in their exact units. I’ve done
my best to give you a general impression of
the numbers given and document my sources
in the blog post for this video, which is
linked up there and in the video description below.
Now, to understand why silk may be objectionable
to vegans, we need to understand how silk
is made. And to understand how silk is made,
we first need to understand the life cycle
of the Bombyx mori, which we’ll go over
in brief. Don’t ya love how thorough I
am?
Don’t…don’t you?
When a Bombyx mori lays eggs, they typically
hatch within 10-14 days. However, depending
on the needs of the farmer, they’re often
placed in refrigeration for months at a time
up to a year. Once warmed back up again, they generally
hatch in the same timeframe. The hatchlings
need to be fed immediately as they have a
voracious appetite and will die from dehydration
and starvation very quickly. The Bombyx mori
have a preference for the white mulberry leaves
Their name is actually Latin for “silkworm
of the mulberry tree”, and mulberry silk
is considered to be the finest and most lustrous.
The hatchlings eat constantly and go through
five instars, the term for the developmental
stage between molts. Over a period of about
35 days, Bombyx mori shed their skin four
times, ending up 10,000 times heavier and
30 times longer than they were upon hatching.
Once they’ve reached their fifth instar,
they enter their pupal stage and encase themselves
in cocoons of pure silk.
The silk itself is secreted from two salivary
glands on the head of the larvae and consists
of two proteins: fibroin, the structural center
and sericin, the “gum” which cements the filaments.
Yes, those elegant dresses and
luxurious sheets…are worm spit.
Given the bee regurgitation we like to sweeten our coffee
and pastries with, there seems to be a human
fascination with utilizing the oral excretions
of insects.
Moving along. Each cocoon is composed of
filaments up to 3,000 feet or 914 meters in length.
So at this point, you may be thinking- what’s
the harm in harvesting this silk? The little
buggers spit it out and sleep in it for a
little bit, but it’s not like they’re
going to live there forever. Well this is
where the silk production process takes a
turn. You see, to get out of their cocoons,
silkworms, who are at this point, moths, chew their
way out, thus severely shortening the length
of the silk threads and decreasing their value,
and the luster of the material produced.
To avoid this destruction of raw materials,
silk farmers will stifle, meaning kill, the
pupae by either baking them, immersing them
in boiling water, or less commonly, freezing
them, or piercing them with a needle. This
is performed generally between 2 days and
2 weeks after spinning has begun, before they
transform into moths.
Once the pupae are dead cocoons are then soaked
in water to be more easily unraveled. The
pupae are then discarded or, in some countries,
eaten.
If allowed to live past their pupal stage,
they would emerge from their cocoons as moths,
mate, lay eggs, and die naturally after about
a week, as they can no longer eat, and rely
purely upon the nutrients that they took in during
their larval stage.
So, just how many silkworms are killed every
year for the production of silk? Well this
is where I found the greatest variation in
statistics. Many articles and websites were re-pasting
the same statistical table sourced from the
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations from 2005. And the blanket number
of 70 million pounds for the amount of raw
silk produced each year.
The most recent figures available from the
FAO are from 2012 and state that worldwide
161,661 metric tons (MT) of raw silk was produced,
meaning 161,661,000kg or 356,401,498lbs, which
far dwarfs the 70 million repeated time and
again. This larger figure is closely echoed
by the International Sericulture Commission,
which gives a slightly more conservative estimation
of 152,846 MT for 2012 and provides a 2013
figure of 159,776 MT.
Now as far as how many silkworms that means?
Those numbers vary as well, but the average
range given was 4,400-14,969 per kg. The higher
figure was provided by Kusuma Rajaiah- an
Indian government officer and the creator
of Ahimsa silk, which we’ll address in just
a moment. When he estimated that 15 worms
are killed per gram of silk.
If we go with the more conservative 2013 estimate
from the ISC of 159,776 MT, and apply the
range of worms killed per kilogram, we end
up with anywhere between over 730 billion
and over 2 trillion worms killed for silk
in 2013. If we take the farm more conservative
and, as far as I could tell uncited figure
of 70 million pounds, we still end up with
between over 139 billion and over 475 billion
worms killed in a given year.
For a fabric that accounts for less than 0.2%
of the worlds fiber market. That’s a pretty
staggering death toll.
Another way silkworms are used is for the
production of what’s called silkworm gut,
which is mainly used to make fly-fishing leaders.
For silkworm gut, silkworms are killed by
methods such as submersion in a vinegar solution,
just before they are about to spin and their
silk glands are removed and stretched into
strong threads, which look and feel much like plastic.
As for whether silkworms or other insects in general
are sentient and able to experience pain,
studies conducted with morphine demonstrate
insects’ responses as being indicative of
an ability to feel pain, but the scientific
community remains conflicted. Silkworms do
possess a central nervous system and brain,
and definitely display nociception, but an
in-depth investigation as to their ability
to feel pain will have to be another video
entirely. For an explanation of the difference
between nociception and pain, see this video.
But even if we assume that their death is painless-
and we all know what assumptions do.
It’s still a death, and a human-induced premature
one at that.
An alternative to this method of silk production
has arisen called “peace silk” or “Ahimsa silk”,
after the Sanskrit term for non-violence.
There are a number of sources and methods
under the “peace silk” umbrella and not
all are much different than the traditional approach.
The most idealized version of peace
silk is that which is harvested in the wild
from the empty cocoons of silk moths.
Eri silk is one made from the cocoons
of Samia ricini, who leave a little hole in
their cocoon from which they emerge.
This type of silk cannot be processed like Bombyx
mori silk and accounts for a very small portion
of the silk market. Ahimsa silk, which I mentioned
briefly earlier, is made from Bombyx mori
who have been allowed to go through their
metamorphosis and emerge from their cocoons
before the cocoons are harvested.
The clarity of various peace silk suppliers’
actual practices can be difficult to ascertain.
Silk moth cultivator Michael Cook wrote
an article criticizing the various peace silk
methods, pointing to the potential deaths
inherent in the next generation of eggs and
hatchlings and the unrealistic idealized notion
of wild-picked vacated cocoons. Now Mr. Cook
himself raises and kills silk worms, so his
input on the possible ethical conflicts of
peace silk is certainly interesting to say the least.
Peace silk producers have and will refute
such criticisms, but I think it’s important
to fully and deeply investigate any so-called
“humane” methods of animal product and
byproduct production, and to ask the question
of whether the use of living beings in any
form can be ethical?
Regardless of their treatment, the fact remains
that domesticated silk worms are exploited
for their silk. They have been selectively
bred with the sole purpose of producing as
much silk as possible, much like the animals
of the food industry who have been bred into
disfigured absurdities to large to support
their own bodyweight. The adult Bombyx mori
cannot even fly. They also cannot eat due
to their reduced mouthpart and small heads.
A fact which is often cited as evidence of
human manipulation, but this is true of all
Saturniidae or giant silk moths.
Still, these beings are bred, enslaved, and
slaughtered for an unnecessary luxury fabric.
If you feel the term of enslavement and slaughter
are unfitting for an insect, I would urge
you to watch this video with vegan activist
Gary Yourofsky on speciesism.
Just because these tiny creatures look so
foreign and unlike us doesn’t mean they
deserve exploitation. Their lives may seem
brief and inconsequential, but the same could
be said for us from an outside perspective.
The fact remains they are living beings all
their own, with brains and nerves, and desires.
Now I can’t presume to know the desires
of a silkworm, but I think it’s safe to
say that none of them are becoming your dress or bed sheets.
Luckily, there are numerous alternatives to
silk including rayon, nylon, milkweed seed
pod fibers, silk-cotton tree, and ceiba tree
filaments, polyester, tencel, and lyocell
(a type of cellulose fiber). So, you can stay
silky without the cruelty.
Now I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Were you aware of the way silk is made? Do
you find it problematic? Do you think the
“peace silk” methods are acceptable or
is the use of being in any form exploitative?
Let me know in the comments!
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And hey, check out some of my related videos
like Gary Yourofsky talking about bugs in
general, and whether honey or wool are vegan.
And remember, extra resources and citations
for everything I talked about are in the blog
post for this video linked up below and in
the sidebar.
Now go live Vegan and I’ll see you soon.
What if I just open the cocoon for you.
What if I opened it and had some food for
you?
Oh…you can’t eat.
Of course there is one ethical version of
silk- Silk plant milk!
Except for the version that they came out
recently with honey in it.
Why, Silk, why!
Why must you un-veganize our
vegan things?
Can’t we have anything nice!?
Subtitles by the Amara.org community


Is Silk Vegan? How Is Silk Made?


All credits go to Bite Size Vegan