Is Silk Ethical? Rethinking Home Luxury

Austin Interior Designer Amity Worrel Examines How Silk is Made, the Ethical Implications Silk, and Silk Alternatives

Austin Interior Designer

For centuries, the glimmering sheen of silk has denoted a sense of luxury, wealth, and taste. However, I’ve never been a big fan of the textile. Personally, I gravitate towards more relatable materials, like linen, which speak to my definition of luxury — comfort. Silk is just a little too fussy and costly, and I’d rather guide my Austin interior design clients toward more meaningful investments in their spaces. 

While I make it a point not to follow interior design trends, I have noticed a movement away from silk. It turns out I am not the only person opposed to the textile. It appears that the silk curtain has been pulled back on the industry, revealing debates on animal rights and increasing concern about working conditions and environmental sustainability. 

So, is silk ethical? I’m examining the history of silk and how it is made; the ethical implications on animals, workers, and the environment; and silk alternatives that speak to the new values around home luxury to find out. 


What is Silk? 

First, what is silk, exactly? Silk is a protein fiber produced by silkworms, which spin cocoons as they undergo metamorphosis and turn into moths. One silkworm will produce around 1,000 to 3,000 feet of silk thread. It takes around 2,500 silkworms to make just one pound of raw silk that is then processed and woven into silk textiles.


How is Silk Made? 

Silk is a natural material. However, the process of making silk is far from sustainable or ethical. Silkworms are farmed at a mass scale and begin to spin their silk cocoons when they’re around 35 days old. If left in nature, worms would reside in their cocoons for 16 days and fly out as moths. However, the natural process of exiting the cocoon damages the silk. So, silk producers boil, steam, freeze, or gas the silkworms before they can hatch from their cocoons to preserve and harvest the silk strands. An estimated one trillion silkworms are killed every year in silk production. Once harvested, the silk strands are dyed, spun into thread, and then woven into textiles. 


A Brief History of Silk 

Silk has been a highly sought-after textile for centuries. The history of silk began over 8,500 years ago in Neolithic China within the Yangshao culture during the 4th millennium B.C. The legend goes that a silkworm fell into Empress Leizu’s teacup, and its cocoon unraveled to reveal the silk threads she would use to create a dress. An industry was born. 

Silk was limited to the region of China until the Silk Road opened in 114 B.C., providing the namesake trade route for the textile that captured the attention of the world’s elite classes. Eventually, other nations began making their own silk. However, China has remained the largest silk-producing country. Technologies of the Industrial Revolution allowed the silk industry to grow through new ways of harvesting silk strands and weaving fabrics at scale. 

While the sheen and softness of silk have held our attention for thousands of years, attitudes towards the textile are shifting. Today, consumers are becoming more aware of the ethical and sustainability factors in the production of their favorite products. And silk has many implications to consider. 


The Ethical Implications of Silk 

Killing Silkworms

Textiles like cotton and linen are made from natural plant fibers. However, silk is a non-vegan textile that relies on animals for production. A trillion silkworms are killed every year in the production process, and studies have shown that these worms feel pain. Many folks are debating whether the product is worth the cost. 

Mistreating Workers

The human working conditions in the silk industry vary, but many workers are subjected to unfair and inhumane conditions. Silk is a highly labor-intensive process, requiring a large workforce. Unfortunately, many silk producers underpay workers, subject people to debt bondage (a form of modern-day slavery), and exploit child labor. Human Rights Watch reported the abuse of over 350,000 enslaved children in the Indian silk industry, some as young as five years old.

Impacting the Environment 

While silk is a natural and biodegradable fiber, the manufacturing process is far from sustainable. Silkworms require large groves of mulberry trees for food, and it takes around 187 kg of mulberry leaves to support a silkworm population that produces 1 kg of silk. This means lots of watering and manure for unnecessary tree groves. Additionally, silk production requires steam and boiling water, much of which is fueled by burning coal. All of these factors contribute to wasted resources and carbon emissions. 


Ethically Conscious Silk Alternatives

While the silk industry has many ethical concerns, some producers are taking steps to be more conscious. For example, Peace Silk, or Ahimsa silk, is made without hurting silkworms. Rather than boiling the cocoons, small incisions are made to allow the month to exit the cocoon once the metamorphosis is complete. Wild silk, or Tussah silk, is harvested from silk cocoons found naturally in forests. Additionally, some silk producers work to provide safe and fair working environments. All of these factors help improve the ethics behind silk, but there’s still massive room for improvement in the industry. 


Vegan Silk Alternatives 

Many folks are leaving traditional silk behind altogether and turning to vegan silk alternatives. The ever-expanding list of silk alternatives includes: 

  • Bamboo lyocell 
  • Recycled satin 
  • Cupro
  • Orange fiber silk 
  • Micro silk (or sugar and yeast silk) 
  • Lotus flower silk 
  • Ramie silk 
  • Eucalyptus silk 
  • Cactus silk 
  • Pineapple silk 
  • Cotton sateen 
  • Antique silk 


Rethinking Luxury in Home Design 

Luxury Austin Interior Design

While the ethical expectations of our products have changed, one thing has remained the same: the human love of all things shiny and soft perseveres. Silk has remained a staple of design and fashion for thousands of years, and new technologies are allowing us to pursue more ethical and sustainable variations through vegan silk alternatives. While I am not a fan of silk, I can’t help but reach out and touch these new vegan silks when I walk past them in a fabric showroom. If silk is a material you’re drawn to, do your research and consider the ethical alternatives that can achieve the same look. Many folks today agree that the real luxury is knowing your home is ethically and sustainably sourced. 

Have your (vegan) silk and wear it too. 

Amity Worrel

Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.



Austin Interior Design