Everything To Know About Peace Silk(Ahimsa Silk)

Peace silk, otherwise known as ahimsa silk, is a fabric many sustainable brands use as a non-violent alternative to conventional silk.

As we’ll soon find out, silk production is actually pretty scary. The silkworm dies in the process while it hasn’t even spread its wings yet.

But as we dug deeper into what peace silk is like as a fabric, we found plenty of surprising (and frustrating) aspects of its production.

Is peace silk just another marketing tactic used to attract eco-conscious customers like us, or is it an actually valid path towards a more sustainable and ethical future? Read on as we break down all the basics of peace silk and more.

silkworm coming out of cocoon
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What is Peace Silk (Ahimsa Silk)?

Peace silk, also often called ahimsa silk, is a silk product made without harming animals. Hence, its moniker “ahimsa,” a term used in Hinduism and Buddhism to refer to nonviolence towards others, not just humans but all living beings.

Ahimsa silk can be made from any silk (which we’ll talk more about in a bit). The key difference between conventional silk and peace silk is that silkworms are not killed during peace silk production.

However, it may be a lot more complicated than we think.

Moreover, peace silk is quite different from the silk fibers you are probably familiar with.

Because peace silk is spun silk, it usually has a lower luster than regular silk, popular for its high shine and drape.

Like spun silk, peace silk processing is similar to spinning cotton and wool, making peace silk heavier than filament silk.

Later on, you will see why there is such a notable difference between ahimsa and non-ahimsa silk—all pointing toward how they’re made.

Peace silk is typically used as a cruelty-free alternative to regular silk since silkworms aren’t killed in the process. However, we must emphasize that peace silk is NOT vegan. Any product with animals or animal by-products is not considered vegan, even if it was made without any cruelty.

Despite its ahimsa claims, though, peace silk isn’t always the kind fabric it’s often made out to be. Just like every other fiber, it’s fraught with complexities in production and processing.

To understand this fabric holistically, we need to start by talking about the harmful manner in which conventional silk is made.

Peace silk
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Silk Production: The Process

Conventional silk production starts with sericulture, which is the practice of cultivating silkworms and harvesting silk from their cocoons. The process begins when a silkworm lays its eggs (about 300-500 eggs), which are then cared for in a controlled environment.

Once these eggs hatch into caterpillars, they will be fed a copious amount of mulberry leaves until they swell in size and reach three inches, on average. During this six-week process, the caterpillar ends up weighing thousands of times more than it did in the beginning.

Although these are only small insects, you can imagine how many resources are required when around 2,500 silkworms are needed to produce a single pound of raw silk [1]. We will provide a more in-depth discussion on the environmental ramifications of this process below.

Once the caterpillar is ready, it will begin to spin its cocoon by moving its body in a rotating motion around 300,000 times, generally taking anywhere from 3-8 days in the process. They may be attached to a tree or a frame to facilitate the cocoon-making process.

At the end of all this, the caterpillar is safely enclosed in a cocoon of natural silk—the only way out is breaking out of the cocoon.

And here lies the ethical concern with silk production. The silkworm only produces a single, long strand of silk in making its cocoon. And keeping this long thread intact is necessary for making filament silk, which is considered the highest quality silk and results in a gleaming silk thread.

Since the silkworm cannot get out without breaking the cocoon, the intact cocoons are usually submerged in boiling water to soften the gum that holds the cocoon together. This process, of course, ends up killing the developing mulberry silk moth.

Once this is done, the silk thread can be reeled from the silk cocoons and further processed into the commercial silk most of us are familiar with.

It seems quite a dirty process, isn’t it? So how is peace silk any different from the way regular silk is produced?

How is Peace Silk Made?

Making peace silk is essentially the same as regular silk production until cocoons are submerged in boiling water.

Instead of that incredibly harmful step of the process, the silk moths are free to break out of the cocoon and live out the rest of their lives (which is shorter than you might imagine, but more on this later).

The cocoon, as a result, ends up being broken, with the threads cut and much, much shorter than conventional silk threads. Thus, any silk made from this process is spun and not reeled. You may think of it as closer to how other fabrics like cotton and linen are made.

These small short fibers are spun together to make a long, continuous thread, which results in a rope-like appearance [2].

No silkworms end up dying directly in this process, but the results are a noticeably less shiny and less lustrous fabric. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though! Peace silk is still an incredibly versatile fabric with wide-ranging applications.

But peace silk may not be the solution we think it is. Indeed, it is not without its own issues and problems. But before we get into all of that, let’s dive deeper into the silk industry and get to know several types of silk.

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Getting to Know Different Types of Silk

Mulberry Silk

Mulberry silk comprises 90% of worldwide silk production, which isn’t surprising since silkworms are typically fed mulberry leaves. This type of silk comes from Bombyx mori silkworms—a kind of domesticated silkworm.

70% of the world’s mulberry silk production occurs in China, with India being the second-largest producer. Mulberry silk can be made conventionally and may also be made “cruelty-free. “

Making this type of silk is akin to the process we described in the previous section, boiling cocoons until the thread can be reeled off.

Meanwhile, nonviolent mulberry silk production involved empty cocoons with the silk moths already safely out.

Eri Silk

Eri silk, from its name, is made from the Eri silkworm. It is typically found in Assam, India, and adjacent areas, though it may also be in China and Japan.

Aside from the Bombyx mori, the Eri silkworm is the only domesticated silkworm in the world. Its name comes from the Assamese word “era,” which means castor since this type of silkworm feeds on castor leaves.

Interestingly, Eri is always non-violent silk. Unlike the Bombyx, Eri silkworms produce a cocoon with an eclosion hole on one end of the cocoon [3]. It is this hole that allows the developing moth to escape without being killed and its silk harvested.

However, Eri silk is not like the typical filament silk of the Bombyx mori. It is more irregular and is made with multiple layers, with air gaps in between. The result is shorter strands of silk, which are then spun into silk fabric.

As we mentioned earlier, there are some notable differences between filament silk and spun silk, the most common of which is its level of shine.

Wild Silk

Wild silk is basically anything that is not made from Bombyx mori (mulberry silk), which includes a wide range of silks including, Muga, Tussah, Tasar, and even Eri silk; among many others! [4]

One notable class of wild silk is Tussar silk, which is often found in the forests of North India. It comes from the genus Antheraea (e.g., Antheraea mylitta Silkworm) and produces filament silk that can be reeled to create silk fabrics. This is one of the only wild types that are reeled and not spun.

While this type of silk is supposed to be taken from the wild, certain types come from captive moths, such as Eri silk.

Wild silks can be harvested as normal silk but may also be made using the nonviolent alternative.

Organic Silk

Before anything else, it’s important to assert that organic silk does not always mean organic peace silk. Indeed, organic peace silk must be made with all the characteristics of organic silk while relying on the ethos of non-violent silk.

We must keep in mind that silk production, of any kind, requires a lot of resources. Silkworms need to be fed, and mulberry trees need to be grown. Sometimes, harmful chemicals are even used to optimize production in pursuit of profit.

Organic agriculture is the antithesis of these practices. When organic peace silk is made, caterpillars are free to eat independently, growing as they typically would. There are also no harmful pesticides and fertilizers used during production.

During processing, only natural soap or hydrogen peroxide (in some situations) are used to wash silk.

By far, organic peace silk seems to be the more environmentally friendly alternative. It focuses not only on animal ethics but also on the overall impact of the fabric.

Here’s some additional reading on how fashion affects the planet and the people on it.

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Is Peace Silk Ethical and Sustainable?

This is quite a complex question to answer.

We have to remember that making silk doesn’t only require the silkworms themselves. The production process also involves mulberry trees, their leaves, pesticides, water, and additional chemicals to facilitate the production process.

To examine whether peace silk is ethical and sustainable, let’s look at it through multiple lenses.

Environment

Even if peace silk is made without killing silkworms, the fabric’s environmental impact is still there. Think about it. Around 11.25 tons of mulberry leaves are needed to produce 40kg of raw silk. [5]

And the leaves don’t grow by themselves! It takes water, chemicals, and other resources to keep producing leaves at incredibly high rates.

All in all, making peace silk, even without killing the silkworm caterpillar, requires a ton of materials and resources, and that’s not a good thing. From an environmental lens, organic peace silk is your best option.

Cost

Sustainability, to us, always has to involve accessibility. A sustainable fabric that is too expensive for the regular individual will never penetrate the market on a truly systemic scale.

Peace silk, since it takes more time to produce, is typically more expensive. It is also made at a smaller scale, which gives conventional silk the upper hand in terms of cost. Making products in bulk amounts is commonly cheaper than those made in small batches.

It is also important to consider if the cost of the fabric is reflected in how much the craftsmen are paid. Sourcing from suppliers that pay their workers living wages is one way to ensure the money you’re paying for clothing ends up in the community.

Animal Use

The emergence of peace silk mainly provides a more ethical fabric alternative to those who love silk. But although it has its merits, peace silk isn’t the perfect, silky smooth solution to the unethical practices in the silk industry.

Let’s take the Bombyx mori, for instance. As early as 5000 years ago, humans were already breeding silk larvae to produce silk [6]. As with any creature farmed for human needs, this resulted in the artificial selection of the species, leading to the evolution of the Bombyx that we know today.

Sadly, this domestication process has resulted in many changes to the moth. The version we have today can no longer fly due to the size of its body. They now also have an impaired response to environmental odorants (probably to make them easier to manage).

Even those set free in non-violent production will not last long, and the moth eventually dies shortly after breaking free of its cocoon.

This is a sad reality we have to face. Cultivating animals nearly always results in their exploitation and abuse. Peace silk, when taken into context, is then difficult to separate from greenwashing and virtue signaling.

Sometimes, peace silk can actually be harvested using peaceful methods, such as when they’re actually taken from the wild. But this is a rare occurrence and is most definitely not the default.

So, is peace silk ethical? Sustainable? Not right now. As we’ve discussed above, there is much more going on behind the scenes than we know about. Peace silk isn’t the magical solution to the conventional production of silk.

In fact, it’s remarkably similar to the conventional process—with a very tiny difference in the life span of the moth. And we haven’t even begun to broach what happens to the moths when they break out of their cocoons!

multiple silkworms hanging from finger
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Vegan Alternatives To Silk

If you opt not to buy silk (even peace silk), you can use other textiles to replace this luxury fabric. Here are some of our suggestions:

Tencel Lyocell or Modal

The entire rayon family was created as a cheaper alternative to silk. Although we would not recommend its earliest version (viscose) and even off-brand modal, Tencel Lyocell and modal are relatively safe options.

Although not exactly like silk, these fabrics are pretty similar in that they have an excellent drape and can be used for a wide range of applications.

Lotus Silk

Lotus silk is one of the most expensive fabrics globally, which isn’t in the least bit surprising. The fibers from the lotus stem must be extracted by hand since they’re so fragile and must be weighed and then hand spooled before being woven.

It is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process that produces a luxurious and breathable fabric. And yet, it produces such a lovely textile.

Understandably, not all of us can afford lotus silk, making it not the most suitable alternative to silk. Still, if you find yourself within the means to afford it, lotus silk is a wonderful substitute.

Microsilk

You may have heard of micro silk in the last few years. It is a new and innovative textile that was created to mimic the durability and feel of spider silk—a robust fiber.

This fabric does not use any spiders during its production and instead utilizes a scientific process involving yeast, water, sugar, and spider DNA. While that may sound odd, there are no actual spiders used to make the final product.

The downside is that it’s still in the initial stages of development. It still isn’t available commercially, although a handful of products have already been made with it.

Final Thoughts

Just like many of the products in the world of sustainable fashion, talking about peace silk requires nuance and context. Although peace silk has its merits, you can definitely acquire true peace silk; we always need to think critically about what we buy.

As we’ve discussed, the peace silk industry is actually a pretty challenging topic to broach. While many of us might have thought of peace silk as a valid alternative to conventional silk, that is not the case, and it never was.

We hope this discussion sheds some light on the issues and problems behind peace silk as a fabric, thus helping you make better consumer decisions.

You can also read more about sustainable vegan fabrics right here.

Resources:

  1. https://www.biddlesawyersilks.com/how-is-silk-made-a-step-by-step-guide/
  2. https://www.infonews.co.nz/news.cfm?id=102877#:~:text=Filament%20silk%2C%20also%20known%20as,is%20extremely%20white%20and%20shiny.&text=Silk%20filament%20thread%20is%20made,produce%20a%20beautiful%2C%20flawless%20thread.
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7696063/
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128183984000219
  5. https://cfda.com/resources/materials/detail/silk
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3843842/
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