Wednesday, April 30, 2008

It felt a bit fortuitous to find, on the kitchen table this morning, a book open on a page about silk. I am unclear as to whether it was deliberately left there or if sheer chance worked its magic but I've been thinking about silk and the silkworm recently. The book, which I haven't read all the way through is called The Rise of a Hungry Nation: China Shakes the World by James Kynge. Silk is an animal by-product. It isn't particularly glamorous to define expensive materials as by-products, food is more likely to be classified in this way and at first glance there's very little similarity in the status of milk and silk but this post isn't about workers, pay and labour, it's about the history of that by-product.

The silkworm does not appear to exist in the wild, it is an animal that is domestically farmed. Silk is made from the cocoon that worms build in order to become moths and the only definite historical fact that is known about the domestic silkworm is that it comes from inland China. The cocoon is made of a single continuous thread of raw silk and a minimum of 2000 cocoons are required to make a pound of silk. Presumably the price of silk has dropped in the last hundred years because of intensive farming methods. Generally silkworm cocoons are boiled while they contain the creature and this allows easy unravelling of the cocoon to farm the thread. There are questions about the work, silk farming is common in India and China, as the book I found in the kitchen explains the industry in Como, Italy has been declining for two decades.

The discovery of silk is attributed by the Chinese to Leizu, the wife of the Emperor Huang Di, who found a cocoon in her tea and on picking it out unravelled the cocoon so that she held raw silk in her hands. The Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256BC) created an administration to oversee the breeding of silkworms and the production of the material. During this dynasty the Silk Road was also set up to carry the material to the Middle East and Europe. Breeding and production techniques were taught to other countries and silk became more popular.

There are all kinds of questions about silk and the ethics of wearing the material that I have never really encountered in the way that I have fur and leather. Essentially a vegan or vegetarian should not wear this material unless it comes from a source like the one in this treehugger article.
PETA do reference silkworms but don't appear to have much publicity surrounding the information, which interests me quite a lot as this is clearly an animal rights issue that is often overlooked. Stella McCartney may not use fur and she may support a host of animal charities but she does use silk...

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