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Peace on Earth: an introduction to animal-friendly silks
Feature: 3/5/2006

Enlarge Image click hereEnlarge Image click hereFor centuries, silk has been regarded as one of the most luxurious, beautiful and desirable fabrics on the market. But for all the glamour associated with silk clothing, the reality of its creation is much less attractive.

Most modern manufacturers reel the silk filaments from unbroken cocoons, either cultivated in captivity or gathered in the wild. But in order to do so, they must kill the pupae within by boiling them to death.

For those who support animal rights, the idea of killing millions of insects each year just to make silk clothing is grotesque, but there is no alternative.

At least, that's what many people think. But there is another way of creating silk fabrics, one that even the most steadfast animal rights activist can support - and one company in particular is striving to spread the word.

Paving the way for animal friendly production
Four years old this month, Ahimsa Peace Silk in Maharashtra, India, has become one of the most notable organisations to support animal-friendly silk products.

It was started by Ms Maneka Gandhi, the chairperson of Indian animal rights organisation People for Animals, as a way to provide the industry with 100 percent cruelty-free, eco-friendly natural silk.

Since then, the organisation has developed into a fully-fledged private limited company, but they have remained true to their roots by continuing to make only cruelty-free silk fibre.

The fibre itself is known as 'peace silk' or 'vegetarian silk' and is created from the cocoons of hatched adult moths. Allowing the moths to live, however, changes the process of extracting the silk fibre, and that means the product itself is changed too.

This is because the cocoons crack open upon hatching, breaking the silk filament and stopping them from being reeled into single strands. Instead, they must be de-gummed and hand-spun, creating a silk that is lighter and fluffier than most people would expect.

Uncovering strange new characteristics
Enlarge Image click hereBut that isn't the only difference. Leelavati Sabale, one of the directors of Ahimsa Peace Silk, told director-e: "Reeling non-peace silks creates a yarn that is extremely fine, which increases the sheen of the fabric and products.

"Ahimsa Peace Silk, meanwhile, is hand-spun and hand-woven, which means it has less lustre. However, products made from peace silk fabrics have thermal properties brought about by the spinning, as well as a breathability factor that means they can be used in all seasons."

She adds: "There is no difference in the dyeing ability of the peace and non-peace silks."

Some might say that losing some of the sheen robs silk of its appeal, but acclaimed eco-friendly fashion designer Denise Bird disagrees.

Enlarge Image click hereDenise, whose company, Denise Bird Woven Textiles, was selected by the Crafts Council of England as one of the most innovative emerging companies of 2005, explained: "Its most obvious quality is that it's hand-spun, and that means you get a different yarn texture with every hand that you buy.

"I personally love that - it gives the fabrics woven from it a unique, unpredictable quality and every item of clothing a really personalised character. For some shops, that means they can put a higher value on it.

"As for the comparison with the drape, sheen and lustre of conventional, reeled silk, I would regard the textural qualities of peace silk to be closer to the noble characteristics of antique linen. Soybean and bamboo are better ecological alternatives for these aesthetic qualities than pure peace silk."

However, she added that it is possible to create a smooth, lustrous effect by combining the peace silk with other fibres: "One of the samples currently on show at the Crafts Council's Well Fashioned Exhibition in London is an undyed peace silk herringbone weave with cotton - the yarn is hand-spun incredibly finely and the fabric's texture is shiny and smooth," she said.

Helping humans as well as insects
Enlarge Image click hereSo far, you may be thinking that all peace silks come from the same kind of caterpillar, but this is not the case. In fact, any silk can be classified as 'peace silk', so long as it is created in a way that does not harm the insect.

The three kinds of silkworms used by Ahimsa are tasar, muga and eri. The first of these (species Antheraea mylitta and Antheraea prolei) can only live on host plants in the open and creates a silk that is shiny and coarse to the touch. Fabrics formed from this silk, however, can experience pilling.

Enlarge Image click hereThe muga silkworm (Antheraea assamensis) must be kept in a controlled environment while it cocoons itself. Its silk - known to some as 'the king of silks' - has a rich golden sheen and is extremely durable.

The third and final type of caterpillar, eri (Philosamia ricini), creates a silk fibre that feels similar to cotton and has additional thermal properties.

The majority of these silks are cultivated, collected, spun and woven by hand, by the thousands of people associated with Ahimsa.

Enlarge Image click hereLeelavati elaborated: "Since it began, Ahimsa has been actively involved in training and empowering the rural weaver community in India. This is possible by re-routing a percentage of the profits back to the weaving community.

"Additionally, all the people involved in the 'Ahimsa' silk making process - from cocoon collection to weaving the fabrics and products - are part of the co-operative societies organised by us.

"The weavers' co-operative societies ensure that all the silk used is gathered ethically and through fair trade practices. To maintain transparency in the entire Ahimsa Peace Silk process, we take our clients for field visits to our work areas."

This practice appeals to Denise. She said: "The villages use traditional Indian handcrafting techniques that were revived by Mahatma Ghandi, and Ahimsa Peace Silk is keeping that tradition alive.

"At the same time, it is empowering villagers who have no other place to turn for employment and is keeping their villages thriving. It's a humanitarian effort, creating employment for those huge communities that don't have enough jobs. It's a big dream, but it's good to see someone trying to fulfil it."

Spreading the word of animal-friendly silks
Of course, paying fair trade wages for a time consuming process isn't cheap. As a result, peace silk may cost a little more than its animal-unfriendly brethren.

Enlarge Image click hereEnlarge Image click hereLeelavati said: "The peace silk process is non-mechanical and involves a lot of human labour, from collecting the cocoons to spinning the yarn to weaving the fabrics and products. This does affect the pricing to a certain extent, but most of our customers do share our ideology.

"However, there are times when we do get requests for fabrics made from a silk and cotton or silk and wool mix, to keep a check on the cost of their products."

But Denise Bird believes that peace silk is affordable and practical, and to prove this, she has created several garments using the fabric. Among the different clothes she designed is a spectacular kimono.

She elaborated: "What I really want to do is make ecological textiles available to the mass market, I want them to be available to our high street stores. I made the kimono in the hope of realising that dream.

"I wanted to make a beautiful garment that would display the quality of the textile and show that it can be used in large quantities for an affordable price. That's why I wanted to make a kimono; it's big and really shows off the textile."

In fact, she was so impressed by the fabric that she decided to spread the word: "Ahimsa sent me 10 swatch packs of their fabrics and I've sent some to other designers already, some of whom have placed orders," she said. "If anyone else is interested, I'd be happy to Enlarge Image click heresend on a swatch pack, free of charge."

Some of Denise's other work with the fabric is currently on display in London; some at the Crafts Council's Well Fashioned Exhibition in Islington and others at the Lesley Craze Gallery in Clerkenwell Green.

She concludes: "If you have a buyer who's interested in ethical considerations, Ahimsa Peace Silk should be your first choice. It's the best silk on Earth in that respect.

"I really do think that the future of the fashion industry ought to move towards ethical production. There's simply no reason not to - it benefits so many people at the end of the day." 

Author: James Wilkinson
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