an old tree

Silk: Ethical Issues & Vegan Alternatives

Silk is yet another substance that requires attention from people following a vegan lifestyle.

A century or two ago, well-dressed women could hardly avoid silk. At the time, no other fiber could be woven into such a sheer fabric. For more than a century prior to World War II, every affluent Western woman owned multiple pairs of silk stockings. In the East, the Japanese wore silk kimonos and wealthier Indian women wore saris made from silk. The Chinese, who invented silk 5000 years ago, used this fabric exclusively for royal garments.

But the invention of nylon in 1938 and the development of other modern textiles have given us excellent vegan silk alternatives. No longer does silk offer unique properties. We now have multiple fabric options that are sheerer, stronger, and much cheaper than silk. Accordingly, while silk is still common today, it’s now relatively easy to avoid.

Is Silk Vegan?

Silk fibers are produced by silkworms, which are actually not worms but caterpillars, for their cocoons. These cocoons—along with the metamorphosing caterpillar inside—are boiled and processed into silk threads and fabrics.

Since it comes from caterpillars, silk is clearly not vegan. And while caterpillars are relatively simple animals, they do (unlike, bivalves) have central nervous systems. This suggests caterpillars have at least some capacity to suffer. If that’s the case, silk production therefore entails animal exploitation.

Alternatives to Silk

Silk’s importance as a fabric has diminished over the past century. Modern fibers like nylon, rayon, and polyesters have substantially eaten into silk’s share of the clothing market. Rayon in particular closely matches the look and feel of silk. Only an expert tailor or seamstress could tell the difference between a sample of rayon or silk.

Despite the emergence of modern fabrics, men’s suits and neckties are still often made from silk. It also shows up in fancier shirts, dresses, and sweaters often enough that you should always check the label. You’ll find no shortage of apparel woven from rayon or synthetic fibers.

For further reading: please see our Vegan Apparel and our Animal Ingredients pages.

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