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5 Sustainable Vegan Silks That Do No Harm

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These luxurious sustainable vegan silks are a wonderful, cruelty-free alternative to the real thing.

By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

For thousands of years, silk has been associated with luxury. From emperor’s robes to concubine’s scarves, the fabric represented wealth, refinement, and sensuality.  Of course, this is all true today, too, but we can add ‘sustainability’ to that list – silk is a biodegradable material that takes to dye quickly, meaning that unlike some other fibres, it doesn’t need multiple dye baths, which is good news for the environment. But silk can be bad news for animals!

Most people know  that the refined textile is the outcome of the silkworm spinning a fibroin protein into a  cocoon, which can be comprised of up to a  hundred metres of silk thread. To emerge from its cocoon, the silkworm secretes a fluid which burns a hole through the strands. But since this damages and breaks the fibre, farmers habitually boil the silkworm alive to save the silk. Finding this to be cruel,  various designers to find alternative ways of making silk.

Here are 5 of the best – and most sustainable – vegan silks, and the wonderful designers who use them.

5 Sustainable Vegan Silks That Do No Harm

1. Peace Silk or Ahimsa Silk

The brainchild of Kusuma Rajaiah, a government officer in India,  applied the theories behind the peaceful Ahimsa way of life to the making of silk in 1990. Whilst normal silk boils silkworms alive in their cocoons Peace Silk, also known as Ahimsa Silk, allows the silkworm to emerge out of the cocoon naturally. Fibres from the damaged cocoon are spun together forming a silk which has the same luxurious feel of silk, with a slightly ‘raw’ appearance.

From a purely economic standpoint, it’s hard to justify using this kind of silk, as it requires 10 extra days in the process to let the larvae grow and the moths to hatch out of the cocoons, free to fly away and live their mothy lives in peace.

In contrast, the less humane process takes about 15 minutes. The damaged cocoons yield six times less filament, too – so no wonder the price of this silk is around double that of conventional silk.

Nonetheless, it is gaining in popularity: designers like Tiziano Guardini uses it in his designs, and at the  2010 Oscars. Suzy Amis Cameron had a blue gown made for the event whose principal fabric was Ahimsa silk.

As with any  silk product, be sure you take care of your peace silk garments properly. No need to dry clean; they can be washed by hand without being damaged. Just make sure you use  a mild soap in lukewarm or cold water. Gently move the fabric from side to side for no more than five minutes, then remove the silk from the water, wrap it in a dry towel and roll it out to straighten it up. Most importantly, never ever forget to iron silk from the back  side, using a bit of sprayed water:  excessive heat will damage it.

Where to find it

Ayten Gasson: This lingerie brand shows off  the wonders that can be achieved with organic silk. Launched in 2005, by designer Ayten Roberts,  the label  has become recognised for the firm commitment to support the UK manufacturing industry, whilst demonstrating a passion for sumptuous design and the importance of quality construction.

Sustainable Vegan Silks

Lifegist: We love this design-led Spanish brand because it’s got just the right amount of edge without making you look like a fashion victim, and of course because it has a strong pro-environment philosophy. Not only do they ensure all their materials are as eco-friendly as possible, they also check that the entire production process, including dying the textiles, is completely non-toxic

Sustainable Vegan Silks

Tiziano Guardini: The young Italian design genius is a name to watch. Creating both pret a porter collections and haute couture (including bridal wear), much imagination and innovation are evident in every garment.

 

2. Spider Silk

You may never have guessed it, but those spider webs in your home are  five times stronger than steel and more elastic than rubber bands! Its potential for fashion use is incredible, as it’s both strong and flexible, so much so, it could be used in everything from bulletproof vests and biodegradable water bottles to shoes and flexible bridge suspension ropes.

Spider silk is nothing new -in 2009, the world’s largest and rarest fabric, made entirely from the silk of the golden silk orb-weaver spider, was exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The Museum claims this is the “only large piece of cloth made from natural spider silk existing in the world today.”  It took five years to make, and cost over £300,000 (approximately $395,820), to make a 3.4-meter (11.2 ft) by 1.2-meter (3.9 ft) piece of cloth.

The cloth, pictured below and produced by Peers and Godley, is a gold brocaded cape, whose inspiration came from a 19th century story that describes how a French Jesuit missionary tried to make fabrics from spider silk. Whilst various attempts have been made in the past to turn spider silk into fabric, the Jesuit is regarded as the first person who succeeded in doing so.

However, until recently,  anyone who has attempted to produce enough to bring it to the mass market has pretty much failed, but  Bolt Threads launched its first commercial textiles this  year.

Bolt Threads doesn’t use spiders to make its silk. The principal ingredients are yeast, water, and sugar. The raw silk is produced through fermentation, much like brewing beer, except instead of the yeast turning the sugar into alcohol, they turn it into the raw stuff of spider silk. Bolt Threads spins that into threads using a method similar to the wet-spinning process used to create cellulose-based fibers such as Lyocell. It is  molecularly the same as natural spider silk, with the exception of a few small variations.

Where to find it

It’s not yet widely available, but synthetic spider silk is so incredibly durable, it could be used for everything from car  parts and medical devices to outdoor gear. No wonder Bolt Threads recently announced a new partnership with the eco friendly outdoor brand Patagonia. The North Face are also interested in the material. Spider silk ski wear? It could soon be a possibility!

Photo credit here.

3. Lotus Silk

Lotus thread is one of the world’s rarest -and most sacred – threads, and by far the most luxurious of vegan silks. Its natural colours range from café latte to deeper mocha, with wonderfully subtle variations in both hue and texture, guaranteeing the uniqueness of each garment that uses them.

Lotus fabric has unique properties: it is naturally soft and light. It’s very breathable, and unlike silk or linen, it’s difficult to wrinkle. It’s also a highly eco-friendly, as it needs no finishing chemicals or toxic products to produce. In fact, it’s probably the most ecological fabric in the world, and as mentioned above, it’s nothing new: thousands of years ago, lotus fabric was widely known in South East Asia, but the art of creating it was soon forgotten.

Lotus flowers, however, are still highly popular commercially – but the flower’s stems are left behind after the blossoms are cut. Textile makers use those stems, which would otherwise go to waste, into luxe textiles. This is a highly laborious process, with some 6,500 lotus stems required to make a single length of hand woven fabric.

Where to find it

Moyadi ensures they provide an ethical luxury experience for their customers. All the ingredients used to create and present their lotus silk scarves and wraps are selected with intent and uphold the highest ecological standards. For example, they package their products sustainably in reusable glass jars, plant-based certified compostable pouches, and use unbleached sugarcane labels.

4. Art Silk

As we all know, the bamboo plant is wonderfully sustainable; but bamboo fabric…not so much. Basically, there are two ways to process bamboo to make the plant into a fabric: mechanically or chemically. The mechanical way is done by crushing the fibrous parts of the bamboo plant and then using natural enzymes to break these down into a mushy mass. This is then combed out and spun into yarn. Bamboo fabric made from this process is sometimes called bamboo linen, but it can have the texture of raw silk. Unfortunately, very little of this fabric is manufactured for clothing because it’s so  labor intensive and costly.

The most common form of bamboo ‘silk’ is chemically manufactured, and has the feeling of modal or rayon, not quite silk. It’s made  by “cooking” the bamboo leaves and woody shoots in strong chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH – also known as caustic soda or lye) and carbon disulfide. This process is also known as hydrolysis alkalization, and is usually combined with multi-phase bleaching.

Both sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide have been linked to serious health problems – and when these chemicals are dumped into the water table as part of the manufacturing process, they do harm to aquatic life.  Because of the potential health risks and damage to the environment that it causes, Art Silk and most  bamboo textiles cannot be  considered sustainable or environmentally supportable.  Still, many vegans prefer this to a natural fabric that comes from animals.

Where to find it

Bamboo Blonde: This Australian brand is well known for its silky bamboo fabrics and light, summery designs. No wonder the label is popular in Boho chic hotspots like Byron Bay and Bali.

Kokoro Organics also makes kimonos, pants and loose tops from silky bamboo fibres. All garments are fully breathable, protect the skin from UV rays, and are designed to suit both men and women. Furthermore, Kokoro Organics’ textiles are Oeko-Tex certified.

5. Ramie

There’s no doubt that silk bio-degrades easily, and is therefore kind to the planet. And that’s true. Silk is also gloriously soft, drapes like a dream, and feels wonderful on the body. So what’s an animal-and-planet loving fashionista to do?

Well, apart from the options above, there’s also something called Ramie that’s derived from a flowering plant in the nettle family. It has actually been used for over 6,000 years for the production of fabric, mainly in China, Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines, and it has the look, feel and drape of raw silk.

It makes for beautiful blouses and dresses, as well as scarves and wraps.

Where to find it

The Italian label Balossa has centred its entire collection on Ramie, and the designs are spectacular, as you can see below.

Sustainable Vegan Silks Sustainable Vegan Silks

Another brand that’s proud to use ramie is Joslin. This label only uses fabrications derived from natural compositions in each and every design, synthetics and plastics are only used when there is no natural alternative – a situation they rarely find themselves in!

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

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8 Comments

  • Reply
    Is Silk Sustainable?
    Oct 2, 2018 at 7:21 am

    […] also helping create new and better alternatives to silk. Bolt Threat launched its first commercial spider silk. But the company does not use spider in the process. In fact, the thread is made from yeast, water, […]

  • Reply
    Fashioned from Nature At The V&A Examines Natural Fashion Over Time - Eluxe Magazine
    Oct 28, 2018 at 11:29 am

    […] National Institute of Agricultural Science (NIAS), South Korea, and a tunic and trousers made from synthetic spider silk from Bolt Threads x Stella McCartney, for […]

  • Reply
    Espen
    Apr 4, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    Just for the sake of argument, only two of these are actually “vegan” and that is Bamboo silk and Ramie, which are a plant product.. and subsequently not silk as silk is only produced by worms and spiders… 😉
    As for synthetic spider silk, mentioned in the comment above, that’s a whole other can of (silk) worms, as “synthetic silk” is about as logical as synthetic wood or synthetic wool.. it ceases to be silk if it is made from any other material…

    • Reply
      Chere
      Apr 4, 2019 at 9:51 pm

      Yes, admittedly, vegans have an issue with vocabulary sometimes. For example ‘vegan leather’ is not leather, and ‘vegan cheese’ isn’t cheese….but I think you know what we meant 😉

  • Reply
    Vegan Fashion - How to Start Dressing Cruelty-Free - My Vegan Dreams
    Jun 12, 2019 at 8:00 am

    […] Alternatives: if you crave the soft texture of silk, there are many humane varieties as well – Ahimsa (Peace) silk, synthetic spider silk, Art Silk, and […]

  • Reply
    Alexis
    Jan 17, 2020 at 11:29 am

    Well the first two are not in the slightest bit vegan!

    • Reply
      Chere
      Jan 17, 2020 at 5:12 pm

      Vegans have different views on peace silk. If it doesn’t harm the animals, some would argue that it’s better for animals ultimately than synthetic fabrics, which harm oceanic life. As for spider silk, ” Bolt Threads doesn’t use spiders to make its silk. The principal ingredients are yeast, water, and sugar. The raw silk is produced through fermentation, much like brewing beer, except instead of the yeast turning the sugar into alcohol, they turn it into the raw stuff of spider silk. Bolt Threads spins that into threads using a method similar to the wet-spinning process used to create cellulose-based fibers such as Lyocell. It is molecularly the same as natural spider silk, with the exception of a few small variations.”

  • Reply
    ColieCo Lingerie
    Jan 18, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    Great to see some other examples of this! ❤️ We introduced our first OEKO-TEX certified organic vegan bamboo lingerie set recently and we LOVE it! Unlike some bamboo fabrics, our bamboo silk is manufactured in a closed-loop system, meaning that the strong chemicals used to prepare the bamboo fibre for spinning is retained and reused, rather than being released into the outside environment too 🌿

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