In today’s sustainability-focused fashion climate, fabrics like fur and leather are often under fire for their questionable ethics, but one fabric that often gets overlooked in that conversation is silk. Most people have no clue about where this much-used material comes from (I’ve had people ask me if silk comes from plants!) and even fewer are aware of how many lives it claims: to make just one kilogram of silk, up to 6,6 thousand silkworms die.
The way they die in is also particularly gruesome: silkworms are commonly boiled alive in their cocoons, which makes the cocoon unravel and allows workers to extract the silk fibre.
In practices such as “peace silk” or “ahimsa silk”, the silkworms are (supposedly) left to live out their natural lifespans – but Beauty Without Cruelty, an animal protection group in India, found male silkworms crudely discarded and many silkworms kept in fridges at a “peace silk” farm. As always when animals are used in mass production, cruelty is guaranteed.
Silk also comes with environmental implications: the 2017 Pulse of Fashion Industry report found that silk was the second most polluting material for cradle-to-gate impact, scoring particularly high for fossil fuel use, global warming contribution and eutrophication (a process where runoff from production causes a body of water to come too nutritionally dense, disturbing the ecosystem).
Eco-friendly, vegan replacements for animal-derived fabrics have lately come from unlikely sources, with fruit being some of the most prominent: leather made from pineapples, apples and grapes is slowly but surely stepping out into the mainstream. And another innovative fruit-derived fabric, this time a silk replacement, is set to join them: orange silk, created by Italian company Orange Fiber.
Founded in 2014 by Adriana Santanocino and Enrica Arena following a collaboration with the Politecnico di Milano university, this material innovation taps into the fashion potential of the one million tonnes of citrus fruit waste generated each year in Italy alone. The brand has patented a technology that extracts cellulose from the leftovers that remain after the fruits are juiced. The cellulose can then be transformed into a luxurious silk-like fabric, which was presented in Milan in 2014 on occasion of VOGUE’s event Fashion’s Night Out.
The brand has developed a soft, lightweight fabric that drapes easily and can be coloured and printed just like traditional materials. Material extraction happens in Sicily, home to a large orange industry. The raw material is then spun in a spinning factory in Spain before it returns to Italy, this time to Como, to be transformed into the finished fabric.
On Earth Day 2017, Orange Fiber presented their new fabric in collaboration with Salvatore Ferragamo – the legendary Italian heritage brand had incorporated the material into a range of designs.
In 2016, the brand was awarded H&M’s Global Change Award, while last year it was selected for the Fashion For Good Plug and Play Accelerator, which allowed the founders to be mentored by brands such as Adidas, Zalando, Target and Kering. The fabric has also been showcased at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition Fashioned From Nature – pieces from the aforementioned Salvatore Ferragamo collaboration were among the garments selected to be shown in an exhibit which aims to highlight fashion innovation coming from nature, and invite reflection on how fashion practices and processes impact the environment. A consideration that we believe is necessary – and that will prompt innovation and progress in the form of fabrics like the ones created by the entrepreneurs of Orange Fiber.
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All photos courtesy of Orange Fiber