University of Fashion Blog

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Jackie Warhime University of Fashion blogger

Jackie Warehime is a New York-based designer and sustainability advocate with a background in product design. She writes about sustainable design at www.jackiewarehime.com, with the goal of exploring and expanding the ethical and sustainable approaches to crafting the world we live in.

Silk Through Time – From Ancient Luxury to Modern Sustainability

19th Century Silk Dress from Present-day Uzbekistan, Bukhara (Photo Credit: The MET, Islamic Art collection, “Robe”)

19th Century Silk Dress from Present-day Uzbekistan, Bukhara (Photo Credit: The MET, Islamic Art collection, “Robe”)

SILK – a fabric steeped in legend, with tales of secrets and smuggling along the ancient Silk Road, now finds itself at the heart of modern controversy. Luckily, as a luxurious, durable, and biodegradable fabric, there are ways that we can prioritize the benefits of this fabric and leave the rest behind.

Early History & Expansion of Silk

Silkworm caterpillars feeding on leaves (Photo credit: Storyteller.com, IOM/Begüm Başaran)

Silkworm caterpillars feeding on leaves (Photo credit: Storyteller.com, IOM/Begüm Başaran)

Legend traces silk’s origins back to the Chinese empress Leizu around 3000 BCE, who, according to myth, discovered the fabric by chance as a silkworm’s cocoon fell into her tea. While the truth of this tale remains shrouded, silk undeniably began its journey in China, flourishing into a prized commodity for its luxurious feel and ability to hold vibrant color.

Silk’s expansion beyond China’s borders was spurred by the Silk Road, transforming it from a closely guarded secret to a global treasure. However, the production of silk remained largely a secret that only China held until around 550 CE, when the emperor of the Byzantine Empire convinced two monks to smuggle silk worms out of China. From those clandestine caterpillars grew the silk production of Europe. As a lightweight, vibrant fabric, it quickly became a status symbol, adorning the elite from Asia to Europe.

Today’s Ethical and Environmental Concerns in Silk Production

Silk Moth Image

Silk Moth (Image by Dan Burchmore from Pixabay)

Contrary to the name silkworm, silk doesn’t originate from worms but from caterpillars, who weave their cocoons out of these long silk fibers before emerging as moths. Where the fibers would naturally be broken as the moth emerges from the cocoon, traditional silk production involves boiling or steaming the cocoons to kill the moth before it has a chance to emerge to preserve the long strands. The most common kind of silk is Mulberry silk, named after the tree the caterpillars feed on, and is typically processed this way.

This process is deemed unsustainable and unethical by some due to its impact on the silkworms. Raising silkworms also has a toll on the environment: silk production demands vast quantities of mulberry leaves, necessitating extensive land use, water consumption, and fertilizer application.

Weaving a Sustainable Future: Innovation and Alternatives

Eucalyptus silk dress from brand Green Cult (Image credit: theGreenCult.com)Eucalyptus silk dress from brand Green Cult (Image credit: theGreenCult.com)

In response to ethical and environmental concerns, alternative solutions are gaining popularity within the silk industry.

Ahimsa silk, or “peace silk,” refers to a process where silkworms are allowed to complete their life cycle naturally, albeit with a slightly rougher texture of the finished silk as the fibers are broken. Unfortunately, not every brand that claims to use peace silk is truly upholding these values, so it’s important to read about the individual brands to ensure. But, when followed, this process can benefit the moths. Additionally, organic silk ensures that the trees where the caterpillars grow are not treated with harmful chemicals that impact the environment and ecosystems around them.

Another alternative to traditional silk is semi-synthetic fabrics with silk-like properties. Made from eucalyptus fibers, these offer a cruelty-free, eco-friendly alternative. Produced through more sustainable processes, these fabrics, like lyocell or Tencel, maintain silk’s luxurious feel while minimizing the environmental impact.

By embracing these traditional silk alternatives and advocating for transparency and ethical practices throughout the supply chain, we can pave the way towards a more sustainable silk industry and ensure that silk can be enjoyed in harmony with our planet.

So, tell us, which future-forward silk are you excited to try out?

HONORING EARTH DAY- The Rise of Fast Fashion: How Did We Get Here, and Where Do We Go?

image of planet and with text Planet vs. Fashion

In honor of Earth Day 2024, on April 22, we thought we might take a look at the rise of fast fashion and what we can do about it. As fashion students, designers, educators, retailers and as citizens of the world, we owe it to our planet!

 

The Rise of Fast Fashion

Neutral-colored clothing hangs on a store rack (Photo Credit: Pexels/Rachel Claire)

Neutral-colored clothing hangs on a store rack (Photo Credit: Pexels/Rachel Claire)

Did you know that over 100 billion new garments are manufactured globally each year?

Unsustainable practices, like overproduction and unethical manufacturing, have become commonplace in the world of fast fashion. Today, fast fashion is a prevalent part of our world, but it wasn’t always this way.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to stay this way, either. In this article, we’ll explore how fast fashion rose to prominence, the issues that came with it, and how we can make change to create a more sustainable future for fashion, where ethical and sustinable practices become the new norm.

The Origins and Expansion of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion companies prioritize rapid production methods to make inexpensive, low-quality clothing. They typically copy popular styles of other designers and make them at lower costs through mass production.

Before the Industrial Revolution, new clothing was mostly handmade by skilled workers, accessible primarily to the wealthy classes. With the rise of new technologies in the early 20th century, fashion production began to see big changes. Manufacturers found ways to lower costs through new machinery and outsourcing to low-paid workers.

Men pull racks of clothing through the Garment District, New York City, in 1955 (Photo credit: World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna)

Men pull racks of clothing through the Garment District, New York City, in 1955 (Photo credit: World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna)

In the mid-20th century, fashion companies shifted to global manufacturing, leveraging overseas production to pay workers lower wages. This sparked a new wave of clothing production, where clothes were made faster and at a lower cost.

By the 1990s, this trend was accelerating rapidly. One notable player is Spanish fashion brand Zara. Founder Amancio Ortega began his company by making lower-cost versions of already popular designer looks, which were created in small batches to get them into stores as fast as possible.

Rows of jackets hang in a Zara manufacturing facility (Photo credit: Business Insider/Mary Hanbury)Rows of jackets hang in a Zara manufacturing facility (Photo credit: Business Insider/Mary Hanbury)

In 1989, shortly after Zara expanded to New York, the New York Times referred to the company as “fast fashion,” thereby naming the movement.

In the years that followed, fast fashion would come to drastically change the industry: the clothing itself, the societal view of clothing, as well as the impact on the planet as a whole.

Environmental Issues and Social Impacts of Fast Fashion

As clothing prices changed, so did societal attitudes. The view of clothing changed from something to be cared for to something to be disposed of.

This leads to increased consumption and higher waste, which is especially problematic given the high environmental toll that fast fashion practices take: an estimated 2-8% of annual global carbon emissions come from the fashion industry alone.

Fast fashion also prioritizes the use of cheaper fabrics. While both natural and synthetic fabrics can be used sustainably,fast fashion companies opt for cheap and low-quality options. This often means non-organic cotton, which is referred to as the world’s dirtiest crop due to the high amounts of pesticides used, or cheaply made synthetics like polyester, which rely on high amounts of virgin fossil fuels and cause microplastic pollution.

Fast fashion is also harmful to garment workers. It’s estimated that only 2% of fashion workers worldwide are paid a livable salary, and many work in unsafe or unhealthy environments.

Transitioning Towards a More Sustainable Future

Though the current state of fast fashion may seem grim, as awareness begins to grow around these issues, times begin to change.

Advocacy groups like Fashion Revolution and Good On You bring light to these issues and highlight brands that produce clothing more ethically.

Woman holds a bag made from Econyl, a recycled textile (Photo credit: econyl.com)

Woman holds a bag made from Econyl, a recycled textile (Photo credit: econyl.com)

 

Innovative materials are having an impact as well. For example, Econyl and rPET (recycled polyester) are creating new fabrics from post-consumer waste, like recycled fish nets and water bottles.

Yellow jacket by Danish brand Ganni made in collaboration with Polybion from their bio-based textile, Celium. (Photo credit: Ganni/Polybion)

Yellow jacket by Danish brand Ganni made in collaboration with Polybion from their bio-based textile, Celium. (Photo credit: Ganni/Polybion)

Sustainable alternatives to leather and pleather are also on the rise. One example is Polybion, which is growing a plant-based leather alternative from fermented fruit waste.

As consumers, there are steps we can take to avoid fast fashion as well. From learning how to identify ethical companies to supporting small-scale designers, even a small step is a step in the direction of a more sustainable and ethical fashion future.

So, tell us, how will you choose to embrace sustainable fashion?