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Organic Silk? Vegan Silk? Sustainable Alternatives to Luxe Mainstay Start to Take Hold

Silk has long been a staple luxury fabric used in a range of merchandise, from luxurious lingerie to high-end eveningwear and occasion apparel.

Now, alternative fibers and fabrics have been developed thanks to advancements in technology and raw material sourcing that offer more sustainable and performance oriented options compared to traditional silk.

Organic silk

At Bombyx, which creates environmentally conscious textiles using industry best practices, exquisite silk is a focus—but so is producing it sustainably.

“Our silk is high-end and certainly a luxury fabric, but at the same time we strive to make silk an aspirational, affordable and sustainable material,” Bombyx president Hilmond Hui, said. “We set new standards through transparent business practices and a trusted supply chain by integrating socially and environmentally responsible approaches to benefit all stakeholders, communities and nature….We believe that innovative silk production will bring about more sustainable growth in the industry.”

The process at Bombyx starts with its organic growing practices that incorporate regenerative agriculture techniques to restore the vitality of the soil, allowing farmers to resume the planting of mulberry trees—where silk moths lay their eggs—and prepare for the next harvest quicker and more efficiently. In order to produce the highest quality cocoon for their customers, Bombyx uses organic fertilizer, releasing fewer carbon emissions and improving the condition of the soil.

Compared to traditional agricultural practices included in silk production, Bombyx processes are more sustainable and energy efficient, according to Hui.

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The company’s environmentally friendly methodology, for one, includes energy saving equipment, productivity control systems, eco-friendly sewing machines and automatic sewing machines. These policies, Hui said, “reduce carbon emissions, protect local soil and water, and increase the income of those in our supply chain.”

“Bombyx was developed based on an idea that we could reduce costs socially, environmentally and economically in the production of silk,” he said. “We have had several cocoon harvests and are in the process of creating partnerships with international brands to create high-end products made from Bombyx silk.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has said, in pushing for banning silk production, that many of the insects used by the silk industry are boiled or gassed alive inside their cocoons, which causes the cocoons to begin unraveling so workers can obtain the silk threads. Some 6,600 silkworms are killed to make just 1 kilogram of silk.

Bombyx’s silkworms are raised and harvested at an eco-friendly organic sericulture base. Sericulture is used to define the raising of silkworms for the manufacturing of silk. The firm invested in a production facility located in Sichuan Province’s Yilong County in China, where silkworms are raised and harvested at an eco-friendly organic sericulture base.

Launched this spring, Bombyx is currently focusing on media relations and a strong social media presence to build awareness in the U.S. while establishing relationships with brands.

“In the next three years, we are planning to build three new facilities to allow direct control of the entire manufacturing process from mulberry tree to finished fabric,” Hui said. “We also continue to find ways to improve our local communities and reduce environmental harm throughout our manufacturing process.”

PETA has led a movement to take silk out of the supply chain, lumping it into the group of animal-based fibers, like fur and woolens. Asos banned silk, mohair and cashmere from its product ranges last year, as part of its updated its animal welfare policy.

Spider silk

Spider silk has also gained increasing attention as an alternative to traditional silk production.

Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has taken several steps to bring its development of spider silk-based fibers to the market, including an increased investment license for expansion of its recombinant spider silk production at Prodigy Textiles, its Vietnamese subsidiary.

Spider silk, made from the protein fiber spiders spin into webs instead of silk worms, is produced by Kraig under exclusive rights to use patented spider silk gene sequences in silkworms, which allows for mass production of the fibers cost-effectively and responsibly. The renewable, biodegradable and biocompatible fibers are thin, lightweight, flexible, resilient and display strength-to-weight ratios more comparable to aramid fibers than other current performance fibers, according to Kraig.

Under the new investment license, the Vietnamese government increased the company’s potential investment cap to as high as $50 million. The company said this higher investment ceiling will now allow it to prepare for the second phase expansion, planned for a 123-acre site located near Prodigy Textiles’ existing facility, and is part of the company’s systematic and structured plan to expand capacity.

“The granting of this expanded license is a demonstration of confidence in Kraig Labs and the potential our eco-friendly spider silk technology has to dramatically alter the global markets for silk and performance textiles,” Jon Rice, chief operating officer of Kraig Biocraft Labs, said.

Polartec, a provider of innovative and sustainable textile solutions, is collaborating with Kraig Biocraft Lab to bring the first fabrics made from spider silk to the market.

The companies have been applying the performance characteristics of spider silk into yarns for military-grade textiles, in joint development since 2016. Spider silk was first developed for specialized military applications, and the companies feel the materials made from recombinant, or genetically modified, spider silk will provide the global market for high performance textiles and apparel with new materials developed through the agreement.

“Teaming with an industry leader such as Polartec is a real endorsement of our proprietary approach to unlocking the potential of commercially produced spider silk,” Kim Thompson, Kraig Laboratories founder and CEO, said. “Kraig believes that spider silk, with its superior mechanical characteristics, has the potential to surpass the current generation of high-performance fibers.”

Vegan silk

Last year, Japanese fabric firm Asahi Kasei added its cellulosic cupro fiber to the Bemberg brand to expand beyond its traditional lining offering into apparel fabrics for intimates and ready-to-wear.

The silk-like material, on display at last month’s Premiere Vision New York show, is made by transforming cotton linter bio-utility waste into fiber. The fiber goes through a transparent transformation and a chemical scouring process that helps create its soft and smooth hand.

Dubbed “vegan silk,” Bemberg combines antistatic and humidity regulating properties, which the fiber construction absorbs moisture, making it suitable for casual wear, athleisure and sportswear, the company said.

It allows filament yarn or spun yarn to be used in various fields, from woven materials to knitted materials like jersey & tricot, according to the item or purpose. Bemberg can also be blended combined easily with natural materials such as cotton, linen, wool and silk.

Kid Blue designer Yoko Hirano, in an interview published on Bemberg’s website, said, “In 2014, we put up the slogan ‘More pleasant than cotton’ on our storefront, and this really changed how it was sold in stores and how customers reacted…When the staff explains that ‘it’s a material made from a part of the cotton flower and that has excellent absorption and desorption properties,’ this significantly increased the purchase rate. It’s a material that you definitely feel the benefits of if you wear it in summer, so we can recommend it with confidence.”

The company said the fiber is now a mainstay of Kid Blue’s sales, with customers buying color variations and coming back for more.

“It’s such an important material that we always take the time to talk about Bemberg at staff training sessions every year to ensure that the sales staff can properly convey its benefits to customers,” a company spokesperson said.