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The Sawangboran Project – Organic Silk And The Environment
In pre-chemical centuries women had been making organic silk without knowing it. Today, they use cheap toxic dyes and chemical degumming/bleaching products – easy to use, they destroy women’s knowledge, know-how, and colour sensitivity, in addition to more tangible ill-effects.
Every artisan in Sawang Boran has a heightened sense of colour, a wealth of knowledge, and has moved back to a fully organic cycle – the mulberry trees are fertilized by organic silkworm waste, the silkworms are grown without chemical pesticides, silk processes use only rain or deep well water, colours are extracted solely from plants, insects, and mud, and mordanted with plants and alum, yarn is stiffened for weaving with the help of rice-water, and the final wash of weavings uses plants. We have successfully achieved a fully organic cycle thanks to natural colours.
Artisans remember that the use of synthetic dyes would make them sick for weeks with eye and skin diseases. They now fully realize the advantages gained from converting back to natural processes – not only do the natural colours offer constantly renewed inspiration, and a gateway into fair trade prices, but also their health and knowledge have benefited.
They have thus become more critical of environmental effects of chemicals and pollutants, and more responsible in their behaviour. If rain water makes their colours brighter, they also want – and have demanded – unpolluted water for everyday use in the home, and they recycle dye-water to feed back to plants. If they want a steady supply of dye-plants, they have to plant and propagate. If they want their mulberries to be organic they must see to it that chemical pollution will not be carried from neighbouring fields. There is a growing interest in reverting to organic fertilizers for some farm crops. More attention is paid to trees, to propagating formerly neglected plants, and more conversations revolve around things natural, and the better life of elders in the non-polluted past. Greenery and flowers thrive around artisans’ homes, an added beautifying bonus of natural dyes.
Silk uses far less water to produce than, say, cotton – in the first place, mulberry trees are not a very thirsty species, and are often left to receive only rainwater. We have calculated that for all processes from yarn extraction to final rinse of woven items, an average of 110 litres of water per shawl is used. Fuelwood used for heating in yarn extraction, degumming, and dyeing is deadwood or harvested from artisans’ own trees, and amounts to an average of 650 grams per shawl.
And here is another environmental dimension, to our knowledge not covered in present-day sustainability standards: water consumption should also be considered beyond production, for the whole lifetime of a textile. As real silk needs cleaning far less often than other fibres since it retains much of the silkworm’s totally protective cocoon protein, it helps conserve water; as it hardly requires detergent agents it also avoids chemical pollution; as it does not need heated water and machines for washing, it conserves energy. For comparison purposes, note that according to the hotel industry it takes 250 litres of water and 540 W of electricity to wash a single bedsheet once (according to Busan Centum Hotel, Korea).