Ahimsa silk, also known as peace silk or non-violent silk, refers to any type of silk that is produced without harming or killing the silk worms. This is in contrast to conventional silk, where 3,000 caterpillars are killed to create one pound of silk. Ahimsa silk is not only environmentally friendly and ethical, it’s also extremely luxurious in terms of the drape and texture of the fabric.
The word “ahimsa” derives from Sanskrit and translates as “do no harm”. Ahimsa is an important tenet of three major religions originating from the Subcontinent: Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism
Within the context of silk, ahimsa refers to the production of silk which does not harm or kill silk worms. The majority of ahimsa silk is made from the caterpillars of the domesticated, mulberry-eating silk moth, Bombyx mori, though eri and tussah cocoons are also used. However, mulberry ahimsa silk is finer and more lustrous than other types.
Eri silk, produced by caterpillars which feed on castor plants in northeast India, is often used synonymously with the term ahimsa silk. Eri silk cocoons differ from mulberry silk in that they are short staple, not filament threads. This means they do not need to be boiled before the moth hatches and so eri silk is naturally cruelty-free.
Ahimsa is a multidimensional concept, inspired by the premise that all living beings have the spark of the divine spiritual energy; therefore, to hurt another being is to hurt oneself. Ahimsa has also been related to the notion that any violence has karmic consequences. Most popularly, Mahatma Gandhi strongly believed in the principle of ahimsa.
The creation and commercialisation of ahimsa silk is credited to Kusuma Rajaiah, a 60-year old government officer from Andhra Pradesh in India, who holds the patent for eco-friendly mulberry silk. Inspired by Ghandi, Rajaiah applied his 40 years of sericulture experience and the theories behind the ahimsa way of life to the making of silk.
He found that it was possible to create silk without killing the silk worms and began weaving ahimsa silk in 1990. In 2001 his company began marketing the silk and it continues to gain popularity both in India and abroad.
After a silk worm has spun its cocoon, it will transform into a moth and once this transformation is complete, the moth secretes a liquid to dissolve a hole from which to hatch. The piercing of the cocoon means that the long silk filaments which make up the cocoon are broken into shorter staples.
In the production of conventional silk, the cocoons are boiled before the moth can hatch in order to maintain the length and strength of the silk fibres. According to PETA, 3,000 silk worms are killed to produce one pound of silk; 10,000 silk worms are killed to produce a silk sari. The boiling water loosens the sericin (the glue which binds the filaments together) and fine silk filaments are reeled off the cocoon. A few of these filaments (the number depends on the desired thickness of the silk, and the methods of spinning and weaving) are twisted together to produce fine, thin silk yarn which is then woven into silk cloth.
In the case of ahimsa silk, the hole in the cocoon produced by the moth hatching results in the silk fibres being shortened. These staples are then spun together to create a yarn which, compared to filament silk, is less-lustrous, thicker, and beautifully slubbed. Hand spun and hand woven ahimsa silk retains properties lost during conventional means of silk production. It retains warmth in winter and breathes in the heat so is comfortable to wear year round.
From an economic perspective, ahimsa silk is significantly more costly: the production requires an additional 10 days, during which the caterpillars transform into moths and hatch. At this later stage the cocoon yields six times less filament. This results in the market price of ahimsa being approximately double that of regular silk.