Maneka Gandhi Jul, 11 2017

Many people who object to wearing leather because it is made by killing and skinning animals, don’t think twice about wearing silk. Even religious people who would faint at the sight of meat being offered to God, don’t consider the offering or wearing of silk as violent. But it is. Silk worms wrap themselves up in cocoons made of layers of thread to protect themselves from predators, while they mature into butterflies and moths. It is these butterfly babies that are boiled alive and their thread used for silk.

It takes the life of 15 of these little creatures to produce a single gramme of woven silk, 15 silk moths are either boiled or steamed alive in their cocoons. To produce one hundred grams of pure silk, approximately fifteen hundred chrysalis have to die. One sari uses upto 50,000 dead creatures. If life is the same in all, then how much more frightening to wear the skins of 50,000 murdered animals than one.

Those of us who revel in the rustle, colour, shimmer and splendour of silk should know how it is produced. Here is the life cycle of the little creature sacrificed for each strand. Silk manufacturing begins by mating full grown sexually active moths. After mating, the live male moths are dumped into a basket and along with waste pupae, used as animal feed.

The eggs hatch in four to five days to produce tiny larvae which feed on mulberry leaves. These little larvae grow gently into caterpillars in about a month’s time. The fully grown caterpillar wraps itself in layers of a filament made of saliva emitted from its mouth to form a cocoon to protect itself during its transition from caterpillar to chrysalis to moth. But far from protecting the tiny creature, it is this cocoon that causes its death. For man has discovered that this protein shell is actually made up of fine silk threads.

To emerge, the brand new butterfly has to cut through its cocoon, ruining the filament. This is prevented in the most savage manner. When the cocoon is ready and the pupa is full grown inside it and just seven days away from the final metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly, the gruesome process of silk extraction begins. The cocoons are collected and put inside heat chambers to stifle the pupa inside under temperatures ranging from 70° to 90° C for three to four hours.

During this time, the pupa slowly suffocates, crumples and roasts to death. Its dying screams are muffled in the sheath it had so diligently built for its own protection, its cocoon turned into its own death shroud. After this tortuous process, the cocoons are further boiled with the dead pupa still inside to extract the silk thread.

Nor is this the only cruelty involved. Only half of the moths reared in silk centres are silk producing. The others are pupas which are allowed to grow into moths which are used to produce the eggs. In an obsession to obtain finer silk, the wings of these moths are cut off during copulation to prevent contact and contamination. After they lay eggs, these too are killed since they can produce only once in their lifetime.

The method of identifying and isolating diseased moths is equally crude, it consists of cutting off the moth’s tail for microscopic examination.

Silk oil and silk powder made of dead silk moths are used by the cosmetic industry in products for moisturising and conditioning the skin and hair, in hair styling mousses and in some face powders and eye shadows. They are also used in the making of certain soaps.

Nor is it just cruelty that is involved here. The massive wiping out of these tiny insects adversely affects the ecological balance. Butterflies pollinate many tubular flowers and orchids cannot grow without them. They devour plant pests like aphids, and destroy weeds. In Australia, for example, the cactus moth has been used to clear 60 million acres of prickly pear cactus for farming. Moths are in turn eaten by lizards, spiders, bats and monkeys. So every yard of silk has wrapped up in it the lives of all these creatures and of the earth.

I myself would not want to be part of this torture and haven’t worn silk for almost thirty years now. However, I realise that asking people to give up silk is difficult since society has made it into such a status symbol that it is worn for occasions even when the temperature is above 30°C. So I have looked around for an alternative to recommend. Eri Silk is the same silk minus the killing. Its production process does not involve murdering helpless creatures.

So if you like the luxury of silk, you can still make sure you are not paying for another’s pain. Eri Silk is being produced in Assam but it needs to be aggressively marketed all over India, adopted by designers, flaunted by celebrities, stocked by up market stores. We can turn Ahimsa into a fashion statement.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

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