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Q: Do you incorporate silk in any of your clothing designs?
A: Yes, I do like to use silk on some of the dress shirt designs. Let me say a little more about this wonderful and ancient fabric.

A History of Silk

Contrary to what you might have been told, silk is not strictly of Chinese origin. Silk has been made into textiles in Europe, India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia for millennia. Silk is a classification of textiles made from the threads of protein produced by many different types of insects and spiders. Silk fibers have traditionally been obtained for use in textiles by boiling and then combing, or carding, the cocoons of caterpillars preparing to become moths. The Chinese have also used the silk producing caterpillars as a food source after the silk cocoons have been boiled. The caterpillars of several species of moths are commercially raised in order to obtain the silk used to make the cocoons. The strands of silk produced by the caterpillars are too fine to be useful as a textile material themselves, so the strands of caterpillar silk are carded and spun into threads thick enough to be woven.

The Ecological and Social Impacts of Silk

First, the caterpillars bred to produce silk fibers are usually killed in the process of harvesting silk. People with animal cruelty issues have something to think about when purchasing silk. Mahatma Gandhi pushed to outlaw silk production in India due to mass animal death being part of the silk harvesting process. Aside from animal death, many species of popular silk producing moths have been bred in captivity for so long that no wild forms of these species exit today. In silk production, some caterpillars are allowed to become moths for breeding purposes. Not many caterpillars are needed to become breeding adults. One female moth typically lays 100 eggs. Generations of inbreeding have sometimes resulted in adult members of silk producing caterpillar species that are blind, incapable of flying, or even eating. The moths simply mate, lay eggs, and then die.

Most often, the silk cocoons are boiled after being spun, then the degummed and unraveled silk fiber is spooled. The other common method of silk harvesting is to spool the thread as it comes out of the silk caterpillar’s thread producing glands. A typical thread of silk from a Bombryx Mori moth is 2,900 to 4,900 feet long. Obviously boiling the cocoon kills the silk caterpillar, however spooling the thread kills the caterpillar as well. Spooling causes the caterpillar to die quickly from dehydration if the metamorphosis into a moth begins without a protective cocoon. “Peace Silks” are available where the moth is allowed to emerge from the cocoon. The problem with “Peace Silks” is that the silk fibers are broken when the moth emerges from the cocoon thus limiting the silk to a “Slub” style only. “Slub” is silk that is not as soft or durable that is made with short fibers.

Aside from the animal cruelty issue, the silk industry work is known for long hours and low pay. Silk is labor intensive to produce, so silk production is associated with low wage counties, and poor working conditions. Large scale silk production also involves plantations of mulberry trees to feed the caterpillars. Luckily, mulberry is not a very pesticide intensive crop, and the caterpillars tend to die if pesticide is used on their food. Cocoon boiling water and the degumming process of the silk fibers produces a certain amount of water shed pollutants.

Thus far, silk is not a large scale and viable alternative to cotton partly due to the qualities of the fabric itself. Silk cannot be produced as quickly and cheaply as cotton and some synthetic fibers. I image in the future the necessary base proteins needed to manufacture silk on a large scale will be produced in vats by modified bacteria. I imagine spider silk will be commercially available later this century. These silk base proteins will then be mixed and put into an extruder to make threads of all sizes. The necessary facilities and technology already exist to turn spider silk proteins into textiles. The same facilities that produce any extruded fiber could easily produce spider silk thread. Spider silk will make garments that are unbelievably strong and durable. We shall see.

Q: Would making silk proteins in vats of bacteria eliminate the need for silk producing caterpillars, or just supplement the use of caterpillars?
A: The production of silk proteins in vats of bacteria would completely eliminate the need to raise caterpillars for silk. Silk proteins manufactured in bacteria vats could provide a cheap, large scale, and environmentally friendly replacement for cotton and other fibers. After silk caterpillars are no longer needed to make silk, some people might still want traditionally produced silk.

Q: What are the selling points of a garment made out of silk?
A: Silk is a nice looking natural material. The chemical structures of the insect secreted proteins in the silk strands have triangular crystals that naturally reflect light. The crystals naturally found in the silk proteins give silk its shimmering appearance that is so well liked. Silk is a good fabric for people with allergies to synthetic fabrics. Silk can be light weight or very heavy and sturdy, depending on the thickness of the yarns spun from the silk fibers. Silk can look very organic, earthy, and natural, or it can have vibrant colors and bold intricate designs. Silk helps the wearer stay cool in warm conditions, and “breaths” well.

Q: What are the disadvantages of a silk garment?
A: The disadvantages of silk are that it can shrink pretty badly in a dryer, and it can be notoriously bad concerning bleeding colors. Silk is generally not as supple as cotton or as long wearing as some natural fibers.