Like cotton, silk is a natural fibre whose popularity has had some negative consequences. Conventional silk comes from the cocoons of the mulberry silkworm. These silkworms, which feed on the leaves of the mulberry tree, have been domesticated to the extent that they are unable to survive without human help. They are therefore reared in captivity, usually in rattan baskets, and are hand-fed leaves. The shininess of silk is due partly to the structure of the fibre, but partly to the fact that the silk worm is killed while it is still in the cocoon. This means that the cocoon is not broken and the fibre can be unraveled as one continuous thread.
Although silkworms are killed in the process of silk production, on the whole this is actually a relatively sustainable form of fibre production. It is a low-waste and largely chemical-free process, and is practised mostly by rural communities in developing countries. In many of these communities, the silk worms are eaten and they represent an important source of protein. There are also several ecological benefits associated with mulberry trees. However, as with cotton, the popularity of silk has led to mulberry trees sometimes being cultivated with chemical inputs in order to maximise short-term results. This has had negative impacts on the soil and the insects that live on the mulberry trees. In light of these concerns, we have decided to use alternative types of silk that have a better environmental profile. The two that we are currently using in our collections are detailed below.
Wild silk comes from the cocoons of silkworms that live semi-autonomously in forests, hence the term 'wild'. Unlike mulberry silkworms, which are entirely domesticated and need to be hand fed, wild silkworms, such as the Tussar species, live on trees and are able to find food by themselves.
Wild silk comes in various shades of brown, beige and gold, reflecting the different trees the silkworms have fed on. The threads are shorter than those of mulberry silk and are hand spun rather than reeled. This creates a more 'slubby' fabric with a subtle pattern created by the different thread lengths and thicknesses. Our wild silk cushion cover is a good example of this. Due to the short and irregular thread lengths, the sheen, which is so characteristic of conventional silk, is much subtler with wild silk.
At Ecosophy, we are promoting the use of wild silk not only because of its unique appearance and texture, but also because of its potential as a source of sustainable rural livelihoods. Much of it comes from the forested areas of Eastern India, where it provides a source of income and an incentive for people to conserve local trees rather than cutting them down. In some parts of India, demand for wild silk is encouraging people to plant trees on degraded land in order to create further habitat for silk worms.
Our wild silk collection comes from a weaving cooperative in Eastern India. The cooperative is a member of SEWA, a trade union for self-employed women workers, which supports almost a million women across India with services such as healthcare, child care, insurance, loans and leadership training. Through increasing consumer interest in wild silk, which currently is fairly unknown in the West, we aim to help this cooperative extend its support to increasing numbers of weavers and sericulturalists across East India.
Matka silk is a form of upcycled silk. It is made from short threads that have been discarded in the process of making mulberry silk. The short threads are spun into fabric that has an uneven texture, like wild silk, but a white colour. Matka silk produces a beautiful fabric that is both light and soft, like a combination of cotton and cashmere. When placed in sunlight, it shimmers subtly.
Currently, we are using matka silk for our sofa throw and cushion cover. These products have been made by SEWA in Eastern India - the same cooperative that is producing our wild silk collection. Read about our visit to them here.