Silk is a luxury fabric and one of the most expensive in the world. It's considered one of the finest fibers in fashion globally. Silk is made from natural cocoon protein fibers spun by silkworms before becoming moths.
The most expensive silk and arguably the most well-known for luxury high-end fashion items is mulberry silk. Silk farmers feed caterpillars mulberry leaves to make cocoons over several weeks.
Mulberry silk is very expensive because of its costly production and very consistent quality. It takes more than 5,000 silkworms to produce just one kilogram of mulberry silk.
The breeding, farming, strict diet, and harvesting of thousands of silkworm cocoons are resource-heavy, labor-intensive, and costly processes to produce arguably the finest silk in the world.
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The different types of silks
The silk fiber is a versatile and smooth animal-derived product. Clothing designers and brands in the textile and apparel industry use silk fibers to make lingerie, loungewear, sleepwear, blouses, suits, dresses, and shirts.
Silk fibers come from several insects. Most of the time, the silk of moth caterpillars is used for textile manufacturing. Other animals such as leafhoppers, flies, ants, wasps, bees, beetles, and spiders can also produce silk.
There are many different types of silk depending on the animal species, what the insects eat, and the country of origin. But mulberry silk is the finest and contributes around as much as 90% of silk production.
Notable other types of silk fibers include silk produced by silkworms that are native only to Assam, the northeastern state of India, and are known as Muga, Eri, and Pat silk.
Northern Bangladesh is a central region for the country's silk industry. Well-known types of silk produced in the Bengali region include Mulberry, Endi, and Tussah silk.
Compared to mulberry silk, a lot of silk types are low-grade, harsh, durability-lacking, and some even collected from the wild. Mulberry silk is considered the highest quality and the most sought-after silk.
People buy silk because they look for a comfortable and luxurious experience. So quality matters the most in silk products. All high-end fashion designers use top-grade mulberry silk for their creations.
Why is silk expensive
Silk has been considered a luxury and one of the finest fibers in the world for thousands of years. However, only 168,300 tons of raw silk are produced globally each year. The limited availability compared to other types of fabrics causes the prices to rise.
Silk fabric production is relatively slow. It requires long manufacturing processes such as breeding, farming, feeding, and harvesting thousands of cocoons.
Silk farmers feed caterpillars mulberry leaves to make cocoons over several weeks. Cocooning begins in as little as 28 days from the time the silkworm eggs are hatched, which generally takes between one or two weeks.
Silk is a very popular fabric and the demand is high. It's used for many different clothing items in the fashion industry such as dresses, jumpsuits, skirts, shirts, blouses, trench coats, dancewear, undergarments, lingerie, and evening wear.
Silk is extremely lightweight, soft, breathable, comfortable, and delicate. It's considered a luxury in the fashion world. It's a very fine fabric produced with natural cocoon protein fibers spun by silkworms in their pupal stage.
What's wrong with silk
In nature just like many other moths, silkworms go through the same steps of metamorphosis: egg, larval, pupal, and adult. And they chew their way out of their cocoon. In the silk industry, however, they don't go past the pupal stage.
Instead, they are killed by being placed in boiling water to preserve the cocoons' value, thread length, and quality. Silk production is responsible for the exploitation and killing of sensitive animals, silkworms. Hundreds of thousand silkworms have to die to make silk textiles each year.
More than 5,000 silkworms are necessary to produce just one kilogram of silk, according to PETA. It takes up to 2,000 cocoons to make a silk dress.
The most well-known silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori. It's a commercial species of silkworms and a caterpillar of the domestic silkmoth.
Silk production is as exploitative and cruel today as it was centuries ago. Many silkworm hatchlings die prematurely from dehydration or starvation. All animals deserve compassionate treatment, even insects.
Dropping silkworms and their cocoons into boiling water makes them potentially suffer and kills them. Collecting cocoons left by insects in the wild could make ethical silk. However, this process is inefficient, costly, and not viable for commercial use.
The commercial farming and mass killing of animals is not only unethical but also disastrous for the environment. The large majority of silk textiles are produced with very low social and environmental standards.
Mulberry plants are grown with toxic pesticides and fertilizers. And silk production involves a high amount of chemicals. They are very hazardous and released untreated into the nearby environment. They pollute the air, soils, water sources, endangering ecosystems, and human health.
Silk is very costly because its production requires lots of hand labor. The silk industry employs millions of workers in the poorest East Asian countries.
Silk manufacturing also includes inhumane practices. Many manufacturers use sweatshop labor for garment production. And children regularly work more than 12 hours a day seven days a week in the silk industry.
Cruelty-free silk alternatives
Instead of buying silk, choose the many animal-free alternatives available today. There are many eco-friendly and vegan options you can buy and wear to make the fashion industry more ethical and environmentally friendly.
The most sustainable fabrics for high-end clothing are either made from natural organic fibers like cotton and linen, synthetic recycled fibers, and cellulosic regenerated fibers like lyocell.
Many fashion brands and retailers abandoned the use of animal products, including leather, fur, silk, and wool, to choose better alternatives under pressure from consumers and animal rights organizations like PETA.
You can also buy second-hand fashion as an alternative to expensive silk. It's a great way to be more sustainable with clothes. It decreases pollution, waste, and animal cruelty by reducing the demand for new clothing production.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.