Did you know silk is a product made by killing silkworms? You might think this is no big deal; its just silk worms after all. There are people who are deeply concerned with the needless suffering of other animals, including silk worms (which are really caterpillars), and these people have developed a new, cruelty free silk, called Ahimsa silk.
Ahimsa is the Hindi word for “non-violence". It is also the name used for the process of harvesting silk without killing the silk worms. Ahimsa is the name given to the silk produced this way, another name being Peace silk.
Gandhi himself promoted using wild silkworms for the production of Ahimsa silk (see below to see how it is done). The process of harvesting silk without killing the silkworms was developed in India and is often said to be perfected for the mass markets by Kusuma Rajaiah, who later, along with a government agency, developed a marketable product in 2001.
photo of silkworms
What is Silk
There are many species of silkworm, all of which produce the fine threads we call silk. The most popular for use in the silk industry is Bombyx mori. As caterpillars the silkworms eat mulberry leaves and produce fluids from their head (fibroin and sericin) which bond and harden in the air to make a single filament of silk. Roughly 1000 yards of this is produced, enough to make a cocoon for the silkworm. Normally the silkworm would then go through metamorphosis, and chew a whole in the cocoon from which to free itself. This destroys the thread which is why, traditionally, silk is made by placing the cocoons in boiling water, killing the animal inside, and the silk fiber is unraveled.
The above picture shows how traditional silk is made, the woman is unraveling the cocoons, their filaments are being spun together to form threads of silk.
How is Ahimsa Silk Made
Ahimsa, or peace silk, is made by allowing the animals to live. Once they form cocoons they are left for 10 days. Then they hatch out as moths, leaving holes in their cocoon. At this point the cocoons are taken and can be prepared into silk, which involves unraveling the silk fibers, spinning them, and weaving.
Since the production of Ahimsa silk is far more labor intensive, the price tends to be higher. The product is often softer overall, but may contain noticeable bumps. This is due to the fact that the hole in the cocoon has resulted in having several shorter silk fibers rather than much longer ones.
Ahimsa silk is primarily manufactured in areas of southern India, and is being exported world wide where it is popular with animal rights activists who like silk, but not the cruelty associated with it.