Friday, 4 February 2011

A Can Of Silk Worms...

‘Its a complex world like woven fabric, where we can not just pull one thread.’

Krishna Jha

At the Llynfi studio there is always something in the pipeline –whether it’s a nagging idea in the back of the mind or designs in progress…

This one has been brewing for quite some time, and has finally come to fruition –well, nearly!

Revered for centuries, the properties of silk are well known. In particular I have always loved spun silk; it’s intriguing character gives it an honesty and almost humbleness that appeals beyond the glamorous luxury of reeled silks.

However, finding some silk fabric that I was happy with on a sustainability level was not so simple, and the more I found out, the more complicated it got!

Most commercially produced silk involves heating the cocoons to kill the pupa inside before it hatches, thus allowing the unbroken cocoon to be reeled. Any left over bits would then be lumped together and spun, which is how most spun silk gets onto the textile market.

The alternative to this method is ahimsa or non-violent silk, so this is where I begun my research. These are marketed as being a vegan alternative to commercial silk, being produced without harming the pupae inside the cocoon by allowing it to hatch naturally. Because the cocoon is broken, it must be all spun rather than reeled.

Without having any first hand experience of silk rearing, I must admit that I had a rather idealised view of the whole ahimsa process. I pictured village communities wandering out into the forests to collect the spent cocoons from wild silk moths, then spinning and weaving the silk into magical lengths of shiny cloth… hmm.

When you stop and think about it, that’s just not very realistic. Not only would that method be impossibly time consuming, the cocoons would likely be far too damaged from the damp of the forest floor to spin a reasonable thread.

In reality, ALL silk comes from farmed moths, but there is still a distinction to be made; the small, rural silk growing initiatives are as different to the intensive commercial set ups of big companies as the comparison between free range chickens and battery farming.

It is true that some silk is even cultivated in a forest environment, but like all farming, the caterpillars are monitored in a controlled area so that they can be fed easily and gathered up efficiently once they have finished spinning their cocoons.

Next comes the more difficult bit…

A silk moth can lay up to 1000 eggs. If all the eggs hatch, grow, pupate and then mate, and each lays another 1000 eggs… that’s a lot more caterpillars! A lot of caterpillars need to eat an awful lot of leaves.

If a caterpillar does not find food within a day of hatching, it will die.

If the moths were released into the wild, the combined number would be so huge; their offspring would strip the forests bare.

So, if we want enough silk to supply demand, however it’s done, at some stage in the

cycle, caterpillars or pupa will die.

In general practice, only the number of moths needed to breed the next generation of caterpillars are allowed to hatch naturally and mate.

In NE India the other pupae are cut out of their cocoons and usually sold as food. The practise of eating pupae is an ancient tradition of many Indian tribes, particularly in these forest regions home to native silk moths.

Although my initial reaction to learning this was shock, I was quickly able to put it into perspective. In the western world the idea of eating insects is so far removed from our experience, it is hard to understand. However, can we really say that eating lamb and using the fleece is any different, or cows and leather, or geese and feathers… the list goes on. In fact, the families that farm silk moths in NE India (where many of the small ‘ahimsa’ enterprises are found) make easily as much money from selling the pupae as they do from the cocoons. Without a market for one, the other would not be sustainable.

So it turns out that not only is peace silk not free and wild, it is produced from farmed caterpillars, which still have to die. To say that I was disappointed puts it mildly. All the issues I uncovered can be reasoned out, but I still felt lied to and cheated. All these words like peace, non-violent and wild are simply marketing tools, much like the word tussah has been abused by the fashion industry to describe any un-even looking silk, rather that actually from the tussah (or tussar) silk moth.

Even companies claiming to sell ‘true ahimsa silk’ are producing it from the spent breeder cocoons brought from other farms. Yes those moths have hatched, but they only exist as part of the wider industry, and their offspring will suffer the same fate as every other. Does that make it peaceful?

Armed with my new found knowledge, I entered into a conversation with one of the Indian companies marketing this silk. I have to say I was delighted by their honest response. They accepted everything I had found to be true, but argued that their aim when starting the project was ‘to provide a better platform to these self employed traditional eri weavers’ (eri are the type of moth native to NE India).

The ahimsa project was begun in 2005 by Ms. Maneka Gandhi (MP in India) as a way of raising funds for 'People for Animals' and to develop an international platform for those traditional weavers in remote areas of India. The project has since been taken on by another group, focused on organising and marketing this unique product, whilst still supporting P.F.A. through its profits.

Obtaining a better price for the silks being produced enables rural communities to earn a fair wage from age-old skills, which will now in turn be passed on to the next generation.

In the complicated world of textiles, there is always more to learn. As far as silk goes, I am certain that I have only scratched the surface. Without going to see for yourself how something is produced, and then following how that affects the local and then global economy, you can never really know that what you are using meets the standards you set.

For now, I know that buying this fabric supports small producers, utilizing an indigenous resource. It encourages the maintenance of the natural environment and promotes the traditional skills of the area. The profits feed into a sustainable industry, which caters for the employment of women, as well as the extremely poor, offering them independence and opportunity.

The pale straw-coloured fabric I have settled on is fairly substantial in weight compared to many dress silks. It has a beautiful, subtle herringbone weave that is picked up in the light. With an almost cotton-like softness yet the unmistakable gentle sheen of silk, this fabric should be warm and cosy and age comfortably into a drapey, cuddly favourite, with just a hint of something special.

Just one thing still irks me; with such valuable, fundamental social benefits and clear sustainability, why is this fabric still marketed under a false banner? It isn’t necessary, so why?

Further reading:

Fantastic information detailing the sustainability of the silk industry in NE India

A fascinating piece, written from experience (and a generally fascinating website to go with it)

Retailing some very beautiful naturally dyed silks in the US