Choosing a fibre from a design perspective can be challenging enough, but the fibre that a fabric is made from also has numerous environmental and social impacts. It can be difficult to work out the best option when selecting a fibre.

Introducing Fibre Focus, our fabric blog that breaks down the various impacts of a fibre from an environmental, social justice and design standpoint. It is important to also consider any potential impacts a fibre might have if it were to become more popular.

Silk:

Design advantages:
• Has strong affinity with the majority of synthetic and natural dyes. Silk is one of the best fabrics to dye
• Moisture absorbent
• Temperature regulating
• Can be woven or knitted into a wide range of fabrics
• Recyclable
• Very good draping

Design disadvantages:
• Silk is more sensitive to heat than other fibres
• Requires careful laundering because of its fine handle
• Its fine handle can lead to tears
• Un-dyed or pale coloured silks can yellow if exposed to prolonged sunlight
• Silk can be expensive compared to synthetic alternatives

Environmental impacts:
• Silk is a natural, biodegradable and renewable fibre
• Silk is made from the pupa of silk worms, which feed on leaves from trees. Trees absorb and sequester carbon and release oxygen during their photosynthesis processes
• Conventional silk is produced by boiling the silk worms to extract the fibre – this uses water and energy. Peace silk or Ahimsa silk does not harm the silk worms
• Silk is not a local resource for many nations and so it must be imported, thus using fuel and air miles during transportation
• Silk can be rather resource-intensive – some reports suggest that around 35lbs of silk can be yielded from 1 acre of mulberry trees
• Hand-loom silk has zero carbon emissions during its production phase
• Silk is recyclable and so can be repurposed into other fabrics without producing or growing anything new
• Silk’s high absorption rate means that dye effluents are almost always exhausted of residual dye

Social impacts:
• Farming silk worms and producing silk fabric provides jobs, which generate income for households
• In a market saturated by cotton, silk fibres account for just 0.2% of global textile fibres yet they are worth 20x the price of cotton
• Hand processed silk reduces the need for rural to urban migration because it can be processed, spun and woven in any setting and without machinery
• Silk is a labour intensive fabric that goes through many hands
• Silk is a breathable fabric that is comfortable against the wearer’s skin
• Silk must be washed at lower temperatures than other fibres – this saves households money and energy
• Silk has affinity with natural dyes – this avoids residual chemical exposure during wear
• Some animal rights advocates have an aversion to silk because it is produced from silk worms, and sometimes the silk worms die by human hands for silk production

Positive potential impacts:
• Reduction in synthetic polymer production
• Preservation of nonrenewable sources, i.e. oil
• Decreased producer dependence on large chemical companies
• More income for rural families (especially if the silk is hand processed)
• Increased presence of trees, thus decreased levels of CO2
• Preservation of air, water and soil quality
• Decreased energy and water use during the consumer use phase
• Decreased rate of rural-urban migration
• Increased comfort for the wearer
• Preservation of handicraft

Negative potential impact:
• Job loss in other fibre sectors
• Job loss in chemical fertilisers and pesticide sectors
• Increased risk of garments tearing during wear, especially if the silk is very sheer

So there you have it, a simple breakdown of silk’s various impacts that you can keep in mind when buying, sourcing or designing

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