Silk: The Ugly Source of a Beautiful Material

Silkworm cocoons by Micah Sittig on Flickr

Coveted by people of all social strata for millenia, this is a material that speaks of opulence and luxury. It’s used for bridal gowns, formal-wear, lingerie and bedsheets, and numerous other products around the globe… and it’s stunning how few people are aware of the cruelties associated with the creation of this material

Many people ask why silk is considered unethical when it’s not an actual part of the insect’s body that’s being used: silk is actually hardened silkworm saliva that is formed through a spinneret on the worm’s mouth, and spun into hair-thin cords that can reach up to a mile in length. Imagine how much time and effort goes into that!

The truly awful part about the silk industry is how the silk is harvested: remember that this silk is spun to form the silkworm’s cocoon, which is the protective casing it needs for its transformation from worm to moth. Once the metamorphosis is complete, the silkworm dissolves the threads at one end of its chrysalis and emerges to go mate. If, on the many silkworm farms around the world, these moths were allowed to emerge from the cocoons, they would make holes in the silk thread, thus ruining them for fabric-weaving. Since this is unacceptable in the silk industry, one way that silkworm farmers kill the pupae inside the cocoons is by baking them in a hot oven, effectively roasting the worms to death before they can become moths. The silk is then carefully unwound from the cocoons and woven into fabric. The two other ways of killing the pupae is to either boil them to death, or pierce them with a long needle that’s shoved into the cocoon.

These little beings spend their entire—very short—lives spinning their silk, only to be killed horrifically for someone’s blouse or decorative throw pillow.

As with wool and down, there are fantastic man-made and synthetic options that can be used in lieu of silk for any item currently made of worm-silk. Rayon/Lyocell, made from wood pulp, is slinky, slippery, and great for clothing. We’re not just talking about low-grade house-wear either: this dress by Herve Leger, for example,  is 90% Rayon (with Nylon and Spandex added in for stretch), and would definitely be considered a couture piece.

It’s been established that shopping vegan doesn’t mean that one has to sacrifice style or comfort, nor that everyone who adheres to a vegan lifestyle has to adapt a crunchy, granola-type aesthetic (unless that’s your “thing”, in which case it’s awesome!). Some of the most gorgeous, comfortable lingerie made today is crafted from synthetic and plant-based materials—have you seen Stella McCartney’s most recent offerings? The lingerie she’s designed is totally cruelty-free, and some of the most stunning I’ve ever seen.

Silk Moth by Aubrey Young on Flickr

Living a vegan lifestyle means carefully considering the origins of every product we use, to ensure that no harm has come to another in order to serve our whims and benefits. Silk is one more material on the long list of products that humans have cultivated at the suffering and expense of living beings, and nothing is so pretty and precious that it merits the torture and murder of innocent creatures in order to procure it.

If one is completely set on wearing silk, there are companies that use “ethical silk” that is only harvested after the moths have emerged from their pupae, so they are not harmed in the gathering process. Whether it’s ethically vegan to utilise this fabric or not is up to the individual, but there are options for everyone, either way.


  1. Beautiful, guys. Truly beautiful. Being vegan means reverence for all living beings — even tiny ones.

  2. Midge

    Wow, this is such eye-opening. As a still fairly new vegan, I made a commitment to discontinue using items made of wool, leather and silk this past fall. I definitely know that silk is a product that comes from a living being but really had no idea how silk is harvested. Thanks for writing this.

  3. Igge

    I was scared to read this post! Not for the facts already known to me, but for any animal abusing apologist comments as on the post about wool. Supposed eco-warriors who prefer using and abusing animals rather than sourcing recycled or more sustainable synthetics, or “new” materials such as hemp, make me so sad. 

  4. Laine Tainton

    I watched a program on my local tv channel last night on a small “cottage” industry in the ucrane, they had no silk worms left in their country, so “smuggled” some eggs in from France, I was really shocked! The lady’s were complaining about boiling the cocoons because it was hard on their hands, what about the little silk worms being boiled? I don’t wear silk but I had no idea about how it was harvested, it’s sad.

  5. Laine Tainton

    *Sorry that should be Ukraine

  6. I believe they can now make a silky fabric from banana leaves.

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  8. Matthew

    I am not vegan. However I would like to know why the silk is not harvested with the pupae alive? There would be plenty of time to collect the fibers before it would usually emerge. Because despite what this article states, the cocoon is not required for the moth to survive.

  9. Sage

    Thanks. The information was insightful & informative, as I go to make my next silk purchase. Take care.

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