Silk, revisited

12 May

As a fabric junkie, I did a textile series a couple of years ago for my men’s image quarterly, image inc., discussing natural fibers including silk. I shared some information about the textile including its history, care, and uses (read it here). I work with silk all of the time when I’m putting men’s wardrobes together, gathering silk ties and silk hankies, and sometimes silk boxers and silk shirts for my clients.

I know the difference between wild or Peace silk and Mulberry silk, that silk is strong, light weight, and that perspiration and light can damage it. There are dozens of types silk textiles from the lightest chiffons to fantastic silk brocades, smooth Crepe de Chine, super soft sand-washed silk, ribbed Ottoman silk, watered or Moire silk, and soft, raw Tussah silk, to name a few, but I never imagined that silk had uses beyond clothing and home furnishings until I watched a recently released TED talk about the textile.

Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto, of the Biomedical Engineering department at Tufts University, has discovered amazing ways to use silk in our everyday lives. Quoting from the talk, Dr. Omenetto calls silk  “a new old material that could profoundly impact high-technology, material science, medicine, and global health.”

Bombyx mori moth

Silk is produced by Bombyx mori caterpillars that feed on mulberry leaves and spin a liquid protein cocoon that hardens into filament. For commercial production, the silk cocoons are collected and put through a degumming wash, then reeled off, unbroken, in one string that can reach up to 1.5 kilometers!

Through reverse engineering of the spun cocoon into water and protein, Dr. Omenetto has a strong, sustainable, and biodegradable starting material. From this liquid silk solution, he creates a film from the protein so that the silk “can assume more and diverse material formats” to make all sorts of things from coffee cups to medical equipment.

Silk products Silk is extremely versatile and science uses the fibre to make microlenses, optical components, reflectors, and even holograms! The pure protein goes beyond optics, as Dr. Omenetto explains in the TED talk, and can be used as a working material for alternative mechanical parts like gears (that can work underwater) and nuts and bolts. Medically, silk can be made into small vein and bone replacements, flexible implants, and micro needles. Dr. Omenetto even suggests an alternative to ink tattoos in the form of LED silk tattoos that I’m sure are less irritatingly painful as the traditional needle and ink method.

Vegan issues and vegetarian benefits I usually eat a vegan diet (vegan = no animal products at all, including dairy products and eggs) but I’m not a hard-line vegan. Some vegans are very strict in their diet and their lifestyle and have issues with the silk trade because after the cocoon harvest, the pupae are killed with heat so that the cocoon remains whole and the silk can be unreeled in one thread. A super vegan would take issue here because the animals die in order to retain an unbroken cocoon, but as a vegan alternative to this silk, Peace or raw silk made by wild moths who break out of the cocoons, leave a broken cocoon that cannot be unspun in one thread like cultivated silk, so the silk is woven into a duller, nubbier textile. From the TED program, it seems that Dr. Omenetto’s work uses the cultivated cocoons, so for a vegan, there could be ethical issues that arise from this research.*

Albeit the scores of moth pupae that are steamed to death, vegetarians (different than vegans – vegetarians might take dairy and eggs) will undoubtedly delight in taking silk capsules filled with medicine (i.e. penicillin), vitamins, and oils (i.e. flax oil) as an alternative to gelatin capsules  (gelatin is derived from collagen, a natural protein present in the tendons, ligaments, and tissues of mammals; it is produced by boiling connective tissues, bones and skins of animals, usually cows and pigs (source) – think of this when you reach for a bowl of Jello or toast your next marshmallow – both of these products contain gelatin).

Silk regenerates Dr. Omenetto’s work reveals the reintegration of silk into the human body and the effects on the environment. Not only does silk regenerate in living tissue, silk products can be used for replacement veins and bones, the reinvention of silk as a sustainable packaging material could have enormous environmental benefits. Drinking coffee from a silk cup for example, will greatly lighten the load in landfills because it is biodegradable (“you can throw it away without guilt,” as the doctor says). Though Dr. Omenetto doesn’t recommend it, silk is edible and can be used as smart food packaging, relieving us from plastic packaging materials.

It is amazing to me that from a humble moth comes an enormous amount of beautiful textiles and now sustainable products that will make the world less toxic and put people in better health. What a wonderful 5000-year old gift!

*UPDATE: Dr. Omenetto has informed me that he and his team are working on having the silk spun in such a way that the silkworm is not harmed, so we’re moving toward a win-win-win situation!


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