Many of you will have seen the recent news that ASOS has banned mohair, feathers, down, cashmere and silk from their megalithic online store. This is in response to PETA recommendations that these products cannot be made ethically, or not without animal exploitation and abuse. The Fabric Social commends ASOS for taking a stand against these largely cruel and destructive industries.
I would however like to clapback in defense of our silk at The Fabric Social. Although our Eri silk is not vegan (as it is produced by animals), no silkworms are harmed in our sericulture. Eri silk is also known as ahimsa silk, which means nonviolence towards all living things. It has serious karmic street cred.
The shiny stuff most people have in their closet is not eri silk but mulberry silk - and most mulberry silk is made in a barbaric way. In the mulberry process, the silkworms are steamed, boiled or cooked in the sun during their cocoon state, because if the moths are allowed to eat their way out of the cocoon it will tear the fibres of the silk. Spoiler alert: they don’t make it out alive. Being cooked in your sleep is perhaps one of the most gruesome ways to go.
I’ve met our worms, and they have an excellent life by comparison. For those who haven’t been to the worm’s home state, Assam, it’s a spectacularly green and lush place to live. Where we work in the east of the state, Kaziranga National Park is not far away, so wildlife is abundant. Once, in the middle of a photoshoot, we were told that a parade of elephants was stomping down the hill toward us and we should get our model out of the way. You're never far from nature.
Because they’re particularly fat and particularly brightly coloured, eri silkworms make an excellent and easy snack for local birds, of which there are thousands. For their own protection, our worms spend their technicolor days living inside the houses of the weavers. It is estimated that the eri worm is the only completely domesticated silkworm other than the bombyx mori.
The women who look after them pick organic castor leaves for the worms to eat. The worms spend their days feasting - clamouring over one another to get at the green leaves, as you can see below.
Once they are in their cocoons and have gone through metamorphosis, the moths eat their way out, fly away, and their work is done. They’re no longer using their cocoon, so they’ve left it behind. Our producers then reel off the cocoon and spin the silk into yarn, much like the process of cotton or wool. Eri has a sturdier fibre than most silks, so is not damaged by the process. Everyone wins.
Silk is the backbone of many village-level economies in Assam and all over Northeast India. Unlike the tea plantations that operate on a massive scale, silk can be cultivated starting from the home. Sericulture has a fairly low bar of entry, and can start with just a few of these magical creatures to generate a little income on the side. It is particularly helpful as an alternative income for women caregivers who are stuck at home.
I didn’t think to ask our silkworms, but I am quite sure they are not unhappy. They are certainly not in any pain or distress. I think they are living their best life, especially since they would be instant bird food if we liberated them.
I am left in no moral quandary about what it is we do. I think companies like ASOS flatly banning silk while keeping something like leather onboard is downright absurd. I hope that our customers can see the difference, and are not deterred by sweeping generalisations.
Fiona McAlpine is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social - a conscious fashion label working with conflict-affected women in Asia.