Why Vegans Don't Wear Silk

A worker picks silkworm cocoons at a silk workshop

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It's clear to most people why vegans don't eat meat or wear fur, but why vegans don't wear silk is less obvious. Silk fabric is made from the silk that is spun by silkworms when they form the cocoons for their pupal stage, before becoming a moth. Harvesting of this silk directly harms these creatures so, because vegans do not use products that exploit animals, vegans do not use silk.

Although there are multiple ways to harvest and mass-produce silkworms for their secretions, they all involve the ownership and exploitation of these small insects, oftentimes killing them in the process of harvesting their silk. Since all insects are considered sentient — or at least possessed of a nervous and therefore capable of feeling (if not experiencing) pain — vegans value their animal right to a life free of suffering.

How Is Silk Made?

Mass-produced silk is made from domesticated silkworms, Bombyx mori, raised on farms. The silkworms, who are in the caterpillar stage of the silk moth, are fed mulberry leaves until they are ready to spin cocoons and enter their pupal stage. The silk is secreted as a liquid from two glands in the caterpillar's head. While they are still in their pupal stage, the cocoons are placed in boiling water, which kills the silkworms and begins the process of unraveling the cocoons to produce silk thread.

If allowed to develop and live, the silkworms would turn into moths and chew their way out of the cocoons to escape. The chewed silk strands would be much shorter and less valuable than the whole cocoons. Approximately 15 silkworms are killed to make a gram of silk thread, and 10,000 are killed to make a silk sari.

Silk thread can also be produced by killing silkworms while they are in their caterpillar stage, just before they spin their cocoons, and extracting the two silk glands. The glands can then be stretched into silk threads known as silkworm gut, which is used mainly to make fly fishing lures.

Non-Violent Production

Silk can also be made without killing the caterpillars. Eri silk or "peace silk" is made from the cocoons of Samia ricini, a type of silkworm who spins a cocoon with a tiny opening in the end. After metamorphosizing into moths, they crawl out of the opening. This type of silk cannot be reeled in the same way that Bombyx mori silk is reeled. Instead, it is carded and spun like wool. Eri silk represents a very small portion of the silk market.

Another type of silk is Ahimsa silk, which is made from the cocoons of Bombyx mori moths after the moths chew their way out of their cocoons. Because of the chewed-through strands, less of the silk is usable for textile production and Ahimsa silk costs more than conventional silk. "Ahimsa" is the Hindu word for "non-violence." Ahimsa silk, though popular with Jains, also represents a very small portion of the silk market.

Why Don't Vegans Wear Silk?

Vegans try to avoid harming and exploiting animals, which means that vegans do not use animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, fur, leather, wool or silk. Dropping silkworms into boiling water kills the worms and probably causes them to suffer — depending on whether or not they actually can experience suffering, scientifically.

Even Eri silk or Ahimsa silk are problematic because they involve the domestication, breeding, and exploitation of animals. Adult Bombyx mori silkmoths cannot fly because their bodies are too big compared to their wings, and adult males cannot eat because they have underdeveloped mouthparts. Similar to cows who have been bred for maximum meat or milk production, silkworms have been bred to maximize silk production, with no regard for the well-being of the animals.

To vegans, the only possible ethical way to produce silk would be to collect cocoons from wild insects after the adult insects emerge from them and don't need them any longer. Another ethical way to wear silk would be to wear only second-hand silk, freegan silk, or old pieces of clothing that were purchased before one went vegan.

Are Insects Sentient?

While experts disagree over how much an insect can suffer or feel pain, most at least leave the door open on the question and believe it is possible that insects feel something that we would call pain. However, an insect's nervous system is different from a mammal's despite also transmitting signals from stimuli that cause a response in the creature.

While some conclude that insects do not feel pain, at least not in the same emotional way that humans experience pain, they still believe that all creatures are deserving of humane treatment. Even if insects do not feel pain when dropped into boiling water, a death free of pain is still a death.