Silk and Sustainability

Silk is synonymous with luxury and exclusivity. This smooth and lustrous fibre has been prized for centuries. Once the exclusive pleasure of royalty and the wealthy, silk is now a luxury that is widely accessible and enjoyed by many. But how sustainable is it, really? Lets take a look at silk, from inception to end of life. 

woman wearing a silk shawl and a silk twilly

An extraordinary material

Sericulture (the production and weaving of silk) has been found to date as far back as the third millennium BCE in China*, eventually arriving in Europe in the Middle Ages. Silk was so highly prized that, when the Silk Road to Europe began, early silk producers were sworn to secrecy on pain of death, to try to protect the rare and exclusive value of silk.

Silk is a highly versatile and quite extraordinary material, being lightweight yet incredibly strong. It has superb thermal properties, helping to regulate body temperature, and a high wicking capacity (the ability to remove moisture from the body) making it a sought-after textile for base layers and underwear. It is hard to beat a sumptuous silk scarf for every day luxury. A silk scarf instantly adds style and polish to any outfit, as well as having almost unlimited versatility – a scarf can be a chic accessory, keep your hair in place with a touch of glamour, works as a colourful belt, a bag, a top, even a dress or skirt (depending on the size of the scarves).

The Silk life cycle

One of the incredible aspects of silk is how sustainable it can be. As a natural material, it is long-lasting and biodegradable. It is a circular, zero-waste fabric and the traditional growing process has a low environmental impact.

Silk is produced from the cocoon of silkworms; these cocoons comprise a single thread of silk up to 900 meters in length!  Silkworms feed only on natural food, mainly the Mulberry tree. Mulberry tree plantations allow sustainable use of territory, growing on marginal land that is not suited to grow other crops; the trees require little water, and should never be sprayed with fertilizers or pesticides as these damages the silkworms and the filaments they produce. The fruit of the Mulberry tree is also used for food and natural dyes. The silkworms themselves are a nutritious protein for human consumption. The lower quality parts of the silk cocoon are used as insulation filler for other products such as pillows. Literally nothing goes to waste.

Mulberry tree with fruit

Silk Production

The processing of silk fibres, however, scores less well on sustainability. Although the Textile Exchange lifecycle analysis suggests that silk production is much less harmful than, say, Polyester, the HIGG index (a standardised measurement of value chain sustainability, part the Sustainable Apparel Coalition) concludes otherwise. According to HIGG, silk can be a big consumer of water and energy for maintaining industrial silk production facilities at a steady ambient temperature and humidity and the energy required for boiling or steaming the cocoons ready for spinning.  There is also a high risk of negative impact on waterways through an effect called eutrophication. Eutrophication is the enrichment of waterways with nutrients that overstimulates the growth of plants and algae and disrupts the natural balance and biodiversity of the waterways. 

GOTS certified organic silk addresses these problems through ensuring responsible environmental management and water treatment, and that harmful chemicals have not been used in the processing of the silk.

Wherever possible, we use GOTS-certified organic silk for Louis Jane silk scarves and twilly scarves, guaranteeing that you receive a sustainably produced fine art silk scarf. Our commitment to a circular and zero waste life-cycle also means that we encourage Louis Jane customers to return the scarves they no longer want direct to Louis Jane, and in exchange, we offer a credit to use against a future purchase.

 

End of life

Silk is a natural fibre, the combination of two natural proteins, and therefore leaves no residue whatsoever at the end of product life. It is easily biodegradable. Due to its high reusability and recyclability, though, before we get to that point, there is so much more we can do with this beautiful and noble material! Unlike many other textiles, a pure silk scarf can literally retain its beauty and value for many decades. Additionally, Silk scarves or silk Twilly scarves can be passed on to friends, children, grandchildren. They can be sold (there is a thriving market for second-hand and vintage designer silk scarves). They can be transformed or upcycled into new products such as hair scrunchies, bags, purses, and necklaces, to name a few.

This long-lasting value is one of the factors to consider in the overall sustainability of this luxurious material.  

Sustainable ways to care for Silk

Did you know that you can hand wash silk? This means caring for your silk scarf can also be done sustainably! Rather than conventional dry cleaning, which uses percloroethylene (a solvent that is toxic to animal and plant life) hand washing your silk is an environmentally friendly alternative.

To safely wash your Louis Jane Designer Silk Scarf or any other silk garment, stick to the following rules:

  1. Separate colours – wash like with like, or wash one at a time
  2. Because silk is a protein-based fibre, only use cold water. Cold water helps to preserve the colours, and saves energy too.
  3. Use a gentle detergent made specifically for silk or delicate fibres. Don’t use softeners and definitely don’t use standard detergents which can be too harsh on the delicate silk.
  4. Rinse thoroughly in cold water.
  5. Roll your silk garment in a towel to squeeze out the excess water
  6. Unroll the silk from the towel and dry flat. Silk dries in no time! Don’t ever be tempted to put your silk in a dryer! Not only is it unnecessary given how quickly silk dries in the air, but it is also harmful to the silk and uses an excessive amount of energy.
  7. To get rid of any wrinkles, it is best to steam your silk. Silk is incredibly wrinkle-resistant, and even just hanging your silk will help the wrinkles drop out after a couple of days.
  8. Or, it can be ironed with a cool iron. If you need to iron your silk, place it between two clean cloths and iron on a cool setting. It can help to spritz the top cloth with water.
  9. For those of you that really don’t have the time or inclination to hand wash your silk, it is also possible to use a net bag and wash in the machine using the cold setting, delicates/wool cycle. Make sure you only use a small amount of delicate detergent. We recommend, however, that you hand wash your silk.

As you can see, caring for your silk in a sustainable manner is not terribly difficult and in a lot of ways more convenient (and less expensive) than using a dry cleaner!

Summary

When considering the sustainability of silk, it is important to take into account the full life-cycle of this luxurious textile. The longevity, quality, beneficial properties (both tangible and intangible), and versatility of silk make it a strong contender as a sustainable textile. By choosing organic and less industrial silk, it is possible to enjoy this luxurious and prestigious fibre in a sustainable and zero-waste manner.

 Andrea and the Lion - woman sitting on a stone lion in Padova Italy wearing a large square silk scarf

*source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/silk

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