As a vegan originating from a South Indian Hindu culture, my relationship with silk is quite different from the way other vegans might relate to this “luxury” fabric. While it is a relatively simple matter to remove one’s support for silk (and I have), it is important to acknowledge that in some cultures, silk is more than just a fabric for clothing and household linens; it’s also a part of the fabric of life and is intimately woven with cultural heritage.
Before we dive into the complexity of silk usage in my culture, let’s first clarify what silk is and how it is obtained.
Is silk vegan?
Silk is made from the cocoons of the silkworm. Silkworms spin the cocoons around themselves during their pupal stage, and under normal conditions, adult moths tear open the cocoons after their transition, so that they can fly away.
This emergence damages the long filament of silk needed for traditional silk weaving. So in order to procure the silk before the moth tries to emerge, sericulture routinely involves the killing of pupae within the cocoons, either by boiling or baking the cocoon with the pupae inside — or even piercing the cocoon with a needle to kill them — before the silk is unraveled.
With this process in mind, silk is, of course, not a vegan product. Not only does it rely on the exploitation of a living being, it also involves that being’s torture and death. Furthermore, similar to the breeding of other species of animals bred for human use, silk moths have been selectively bred for silk production to the detriment of some of their other natural capacities. For example, silk moths are now blind and flightless.
The manner in which silkworm eggs are produced is also questionable. Reports suggest that after females lay eggs, they are immediately ground up to check for disease. As for the males, they are held in refrigeration, taken out only to mate. Once their ability to mate is diminished, they also are discarded and killed.
Do the silk worms and moths feel pain?
As to whether the silk pupae feel pain as they are being pierced, boiled, or baked alive in the process of silk production, it’s only logical to think that they do, given the simple fact that they have a central nervous system with a brain and definitely have the capacity for nociception – the ability to react to potential harm.
But I don’t know that we need to prove beyond any doubt that the silkworm pupae feel pain in order to stop buying and using silk. It is obvious that silkworms are exploited and used for rather trivial human ends — and in enormously large numbers. A single sari takes up to 50,000 cocoons, and a woman in India might have dozens of silk saris. The US is also a leading importer of finished silk cloth, with a large proportion of this cloth used to for the manufacturing of silk ties, mid-range clothing and décor items.
It is clear that buying into the practice of using silk cloth both in the East as well as in the West, means buying into a large exploitation industry. Most animal exploitation industries have little care for the well-being of animals outside of their concern for a profitable product. If cute and lovable animals like calves and piglets are treated callously, what hope can there be for insects?
Silk usage in South Indian Hindu culture
Sericulture, the breeding of silk moths for silk production, originated in China and subsequently migrated into Japan and India. Trade in silk has a long and rich cultural history. Chinese silk was carried along Silk Routes on land and sea, via India to the Mediterranean countries, earlier than 1000 BC. Silk and silk weaving were adopted into Indian culture, making their way down the subcontinent. In South India — Kanchipuram, in particular — silk weaving became the main profession of the people of this holy city known for its ancient temples. Those temples housed the silk-weaving industry, and craftspeople created unique designs, some redolent of the local architecture, giving rise to the popularity of the “temple sari”. The work of thousands of families who weaved silk became sanctified. Many Hindu priests consider silk sacred and often use silk to drape stone idols.
In South Indian Hindu culture, silk has become an essential element of all types of special occasion attire, in the form of saris and dhotis. Ornate silk cloth woven with zari (silk thread covered in silver and gold) is required dress for weddings, social engagements, and a whole host of religious holidays. It is customary for a bride’s family to present important relatives with silk saris and dhotis. It is also customary for everyone to acquire new silk to celebrate important holidays, such as Diwali. Growing up, I received a long silk skirt for each of my birthdays.
To some extent, silk is also about signalling privilege. Even though silk is part of every important religious or social function, not everyone can afford a silk sari. The cost is prohibitive for the large swath of laborers, domestics, and other low-wage earners in India. The price of a silk sari begins at about $100; a typical wedding sari can cost around $500 and can go up to $1,000 or more, depending on the amount of zari work it incorporates. The monthly salary for a domestic helper may be as low as $30. The only way a woman such as this can acquire a silk sari is as a hand-me-down from her employer.
I can remember walking to Nalli stores to buy silk saris while young street children with outstretched arms begged for spare change. I gave no thought as to why I was the one buying a luxury item and not one of those street children. In the same way, I don’t think people who buy and wear silk give a moment’s thought to the animal that produces the silk. Even if they do, they would think the silk moths’ very purpose is to spin silk for use by privileged humans.
An emergence of compassion and “non-violent” silk production
But the relationship between silk and the sacred is not without complexity or nuance. In the past, it was not even possible to receive an audience with the Kanchi Shankaracharyas — the heads of the Hindu priesthood who reside in Kanchipuram — if one wasn’t wearing a silk sari. But they, too, have spoken out against the cruelty of silk and have advised the use of cotton for religious ceremonies such as weddings. This change in the stance toward silk is said to have come about when the Shankaracharya met with Mahatma Gandhi, who is also said to have opposed traditional silk production because it necessitates the stifling of silkworms.
In response to the cruelty of silk production, some manufacturers are marketing Ahimsa silk or Peace Silk, which is said to be retrieved after the silk moths have broken through the cocoons of their own accord. Some Hindus who are instructed by their priests to avoid cruelty may use Ahimsa Silk, as do Jains, who traditionally attempt to live a life of nonviolence.
But if we looked closer at the production of commercially branded Ahimsa Silk, we’ll find that it is a lot like other humane farming hoaxes. Ahimsa Silk is produced with the same type of selectively bred silkworm as those used in traditional silk production; as the silk moths are flightless and blind, they are unable to live out their lives even if allowed to emerge whole from the cocoons. As they emerge, they wither and die due to desiccation or starvation.
So what options remain for vegan men and women who are required to wear silk for special occasions?
Art silk, or artificial silk, is made from rayon or bamboo viscose. It can look as grand as animal-derived silk.
Mercerized cotton, which is cotton fabric that has undergone a chemical treatment that imparts sheen, is also a wonderful alternative.
Polyester fabrics and polyester-cotton blends can also be made to approximate the shine and drape of silk.
These options are less expensive than traditional silk, but what they might lack in cachet they make up in terms of vegan ethics.
One last note that we should be aware of: Much of the silk production in India is decentralized and originates from smaller rural operations. Sericulture is a livelihood that is available to many of the rural poor of India. It especially provides work for a higher proportion of women than other industries. Even if consumers are able to accept the substitution of other fibers for silk, this leaves many of those subsistence farmers bereft of their livelihood. This problem is not unique to sericulture, as it pertains to all types of animal agriculture and exploitation. Nevertheless, as we switch to alternatives for animal-derived silk, we should also think about solutions for the very human problems of rural Indians, particularly women, who are dependent upon the silk industry for their livelihood.
Guest Post by Rama Ganesan
My name is Rama, and I became a vegan late in 2012. Soon after going vegan, my interest in veganism turned to advocacy and activism. Although I now live in the US, I was born in South India and grew up in the UK, and I share a connection with vegans in those parts of the world. I have a background in scientific and business research and teaching. I have two college-age children, and l live with my husband, dog and cat. I blog for a local newspaper website on vegan food, Vegan at the Bend and organize other local vegan events and outreach. I contribute to quantitative and qualitative research for effective animal advocacy through Faunalytics.
Cover image: Shutterstock.