What Do I Mean by 'Organic Ahimsa Silk'?

First, it’s important to note that there is not yet an international standard for organic silk as there is for other natural fibers such as cotton.  At this point in time, producers of organic silk are essentially free to describe themselves that way at their own discretion, so it is important to look into what that means from manufacturer to manufacturer. 

For much of their processes, farm-raised organic silk and conventional silk actually overlap.  (This is in contrast to wild silk, often conflated with “tussah” silk—actually is its own species of silkworm—which has a very different process that results in much less fine fabric.)  Conventional silk production has its positive elements: for instance, silkworms are highly sensitive to pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, etc., so even conventional silk producers do not use any of these types of products on their Mulberry trees (the food source for the silkworms).  However, some conventional silk farmers do topically apply hormones such as methoprene to the silkworms in order to regulate their growth and reap higher yields of filament.  Back on the positive side of things, Mulberry trees are also a relatively renewable and sustainable crop.  However, it still takes a remarkable amount of them to meet our silk consumption; one mature tree feeds approximately one hundred silkworms, and approximately 3,000 cocoons are used for every one yard of finished silk fabric. 

Cultivation of the cocoons is where the distinction between conventional, organic, and Ahimsa, or “peace” silk comes in.  In this step, there is no overlap between conventional sericulture and the process used to create Ahimsa silk, and while most Ahimsa silk is organic, not all organic silk is Ahimsa silk.  Essentially, conventional (and some organic) silk manufacturers boil the silk cocoons while the silkworms are still inside of them, killing the worms in the process.  This is done for two main reasons: firstly, the process is faster and easier to regulate for mass production, and secondly, it leaves the cocoon unbroken.  Peace silk is created by allowing the silkworms to complete their full life cycle (approximately thirty-five days) and leave the cocoon on their own.  This is also why the resulting silk is sometimes referred to as “vegan” silk and is acceptable to many vegans who are against the conventional method.  

I’ve seen many companies claim that, due to the broken filaments caused by the moths breaking out of the cocoon in the Ahimsa method, it is impossible to match the level of quality in terms of sheen and smoothness that is found in conventional silk production.  Perhaps it is the case that the same exact effects are not achievable through both processes, but I will say that the quality of the silk that is used for my scarves is exceptionally soft and lustrous—and it was produced with the naturally broken filaments.  The assertion that Ahimsa silk can only result in a rougher, less luxurious product is a harmful myth.  

Now, where does the term Ahimsa come from and what does it mean?  Literally, it translates to "not to injure," from the Sanskrit root hims, which means to strike.  A-himsa is the converse of this term.  Over its course of development as a concept in ancient Indian religions, including most prominently Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, it has come to express nonviolence more broadly.  The virtue stems from the belief that all beings are connected to a divine energy; therefore injury unto another is injury unto oneself.  The idea of violence bearing a karmic weight also ties into the value of Ahimsa as a philosophy in these religious systems.  

Moving forward through the process, we come to “degumming” or “scouring”:  the process of removing sericin (a gummy substance left by the silkworms) and other natural impurities from the silk filaments.  This can be done without the use of chemicals, even with something as mild as Dr. Bronner’s, and some conventional producers do opt for these mild options.  The silk used in my scarves is simply scoured with boiling water and reetha (also known as “soapberry” or washnut”)—a nut with natural cleansing properties.  However, many also use harsher (still non-toxic) chemicals, and this can be a point of divergence.  Although these are relatively mild chemicals, they still result in high chemical and biological oxygen demand in the waste water, and can even weaken the strength of the fiber.  

Degumming results in a significant percentage of weight-loss from the silk filaments—typically around 25%.  Because silk is often sold by weight, it is common for conventional silk to be “weighted” with metallic salts such as chromium, lead, sodium magnesium, iron, barium or tin in order to make up for this loss.  This step is left out of an organic process. 

Once the silk has been degummed, the next phase where organic and non-organic processes can splinter off is the bleaching or evening of color.  This is a step that is skipped by some organic silk producers, especially those marketing the look of wild or tussah silk.  Organic manufacturers that do opt for bleaching in order to achieve a more workable fabric typically use hydrogen peroxide.  Hydrogen peroxide is nothing more than water with an additional oxygen molecule (H2O2), and can be used as an environmentally-friendly alternative to other bleaching agents.  This is another area where conventional and organic methods may overlap, but much of the industry does use harsh chemicals such as sulphur dioxide, zinc sulfoxylate formaldehyde, or sodium peroxide. 

The final phase in the creation of conventional silk fabric is finishing, which typically involves the application of a chemical agent such as an epoxy silicone crosslinking agent (EPSIA) to enhance the performance of specific properties.  These properties can include viscosity, dry and wet crease recovery, tensile strength, dye absorption, rubbing fastness, and more.  Most conventional silks are finished with at least one such agent, but many are treated with multiple solutions in processes that require immense amounts of water.  

Although this marks the end of the silk fabric production, another important element for me in referring to my product as organic was the dyeing process.  My designs are digitally printed using GOTS certified organic inks.  In addition to the obvious benefits of non-toxic inks, the digital printing minimizes water use and waste, allowing for small quantities that would be prohibitive to other printing and dyeing methods.    

Finally, what I truly want to address is that the meaning of organic goes beyond certifications and labels.  Although they do certainly have their place and I am in full support of their institutional and social power continuing to grow, they have their limitations.  I am equally interested in what I like to think of as a holistically conscious attitude, where a moral compass is called upon to make decisions instead of solely considering a bottom-line.  Companies that aim for social responsibility end up being much more socially responsible and progressive than companies that merely aim to adhere to guidelines.  That is why when I use the label “organic” on my scarves, I am also referring to other eco-conscious efforts, such as the yarns being developed using a solar-powered spinning machine, and the fact that all of the artisans involved in the process work under clean, safe conditions and are paid fair wages.  To me, self-certifying as organic means holding oneself to higher standards at every possible juncture.

I also feel it's important to conclude this by saying that I am not a scientist, nor do I by any means profess this to be a primary resource for research.  I still have many questions about this material.  (For instance, is weighting with metallic salts really that bad from an ecological perspective, or does it more just affect the quality of the silk and perhaps the sustainability?)  This is just me culling together information from many various resources in an attempt to better understand the differing approaches to the process and how they might be categorized.  Any scientists/people with relevant backgrounds who have deeper insights into any aspect of what I covered, I would love to hear from you!