Animals as Fabric

Animals as Fabric


Contrary to popular belief, fabrics that come from the bodies of animals are not harmless to the individuals involved, even when their production does not technically require the death of the animal, such as in the case of wool and feathers.

In addition to the fact that some of the practices involved with farming and handling these animals are unimaginably brutal (such as the weeks of misery endured by sheep sent by “livestock” ships to the Middle East) once their level of production declines, virtually every animal is killed and replaced with a younger, more “productive” victim. Sheep, for instance, are often sent to slaughter when their wool quality lessens or their fertility decreases, usually at a fraction of their natural lifespan.

Like all animals used for human purposes, animals used for fiber are viewed as economic units: production machines permitted to stay alive only as long as they can profitably overproduce whatever it is we want to extract from them. Once their living bodies can no longer pay their way, they are sent to the slaughterhouse, where the overwhelming majority of animals used for human purposes end their lives.

When their level of production declines, virtually every sheep, goat, rabbit or llama used for wool, cashmere, angora or alpaca is killed and replaced with a younger, more “productive” victim. Like all animals used for human purposes, animals used for fiber are permitted to live only as long as they can profitably overproduce whatever it is we want to extract from them — be it wool, skin, fiber, eggs, milk, flesh, or babies. For many of the victims of wool production, the unspeakable horror of slaughter is preceded by weeks of misery on “livestock” ships to the Middle East.


Wool often tends to be overlooked by many animal advocates because its cultivation does not necessitate the death of the animal, unlike meat production or leather, for example. However, the cultivation of wool is far from the pastoral idyll one might imagine.

Wool production is an industry. Like any other branch of animal agriculture, it thrives by commodifying animals and objectifying them as resources for human consumption. It converts sentient creatures into units of production, thereby consigning them to brief lives of neglect, abuse, and captivity in the service of increased profit margins.

Moreover, just as the dairy industry implicitly supports the meat industry by supplying it with veal calves and female cows whose milk production levels have dropped, wool funnels sheep who are no longer producing profitable levels of wool into the meat industry, often through live export which entails its own unique set of abhorrent practices. Ultimately, every shorn sheep will be brought to slaughter.

One might also mistakenly believe that a sheep needs to be shorn, but the reality is more complicated. Undomesticated sheep produce only the amount of wool that they need to survive in their climate. Again, as we have bred chickens and pigs to grow so large that their legs can no longer support them, we have used genetic engineering to manipulate the sheep’s wool production to meet our designs.

Today’s domesticated sheep will overproduce wool in the abundance that is required to support the industry. We have, in effect, turned the sheep’s body against the sheep. Shearing, which is, in itself, a brutal process in which frightened animals are forced into submission, occurs early in the spring, which leaves the sheep vulnerable to exposure. Deleterious breeding is certainly not the only way in which the sheep’s body is assaulted to further human interests.

About half of the world’s Merino wool comes from Australia, where the practice of ‘mulesing’ is ubiquitous. Because of forced, unnatural breeding practices, these sheep have wrinkled skin in order to increase wool production. This wrinkled skin also accrues excess moisture, which in turn attracts flies. The flies lay eggs in the skin folds and resulting maggots begin to consume the sheep’s skin in the extremely painful condition known as flystrike. To prevent this from occurring (or rather, to maintain their product using the most cost-effective means at their disposal) the wool industry cuts off the skin and flesh from around a lamb’s hindquarters, generally without anesthesia.

Mulesing is likely the most widely protested aspect of wool production and, while it is certainly one of the most pronounced travesties of the industry, let us not forget that we cannot reduce the gross immorality and injustice of a thoroughly corrupt institution to only its most heinous acts. If we were to reform the industry by outlawing mulesing, we would still be left with a corrupt industry that subsists on the commodification of sentient animals. In other words, mulesing is a symptom of a larger problem: consigning a sentient being to the status of an item of property, so that he or she may be used in whatever manner benefits the owner. This cultural paradigm produces the very social conditions that make mulesing and other extreme rights violations possible.

Wool is widely used in textile production. Even in some cases where wool is not the primary fiber, you are likely to find it in clothes, bedding, and even carpets and mattresses in some parts of the world such as New Zealand and other countries where wool production is prevalent. If you knit or crochet, wool is very frequently used in yarn. Alternative fabrics are widely available and include hemp or bamboo yarn, organic cotton, polyester fleece, synthetic shearling, soft acrylic and faux fur.*

Note: Sheep are not the only animals used for their wool. Cashmere is derived from goats, and Angora from rabbits. Alpaca wool is also increasing in popularity. If you do not want to contribute to the abusive industry of wool production, check clothing tags for any of these terms before buying.


By Christine Wells, Gentle World


Unlike some animal ingredients, leather can usually be spotted quickly, but since it’s also so ubiquitous it can just as easily be overlooked. You’ll find leather in clothing and personal accessory items, like shoes, belts, gloves, and handbags. It can show up unexpectedly on some of these items, such as in the case of leather buckles on a canvas messenger bag, or a leather tag on a pair of denim jeans. Leather is also frequently used for upholstery, so you’ll likely find it in furniture and car seats as well.

Since animal use is the dominant paradigm throughout the world, vegans generally cannot make assumptions about the products we use. It can be surprising and upsetting to learn how much of our material culture is literally built from the bodies of animals and, while being a more active and vigilant consumer can seem daunting for new vegans, when weighed against the death and suffering of billions of animals, it is surely the least we can do.

By far, most leather is sourced from cows. Leather production shares a common misconception with dairy: that it is incidental to the meat industry. In other words, it is often assumed that leather is a mere byproduct of meat and that purchasing and wearing leather does not contribute to a brutal industry and a profoundly immoral institution. This is a false assumption. Not only is leather highly profitable for the meat industry (as explained below), much of the leather sold worldwide comes from animals killed primarily for their skins.

Unlike fur, which has become highly controversial thanks to the now widespread awareness about the cruelty involved in its production, the use of leather (which is also the skin of an animal) continues to be overlooked, even by those who identify as vegan and would never consider buying or wearing fur.

As with dairy, leather and meat are mutually sustaining industries. In economic terms, a cow’s skin is roughly 10% of her total “value,” which actually makes the skin the most profitable portion of the cow’s body. Three pounds of leather, for example, is worth considerably more than three pounds of flesh. Leather helps make the meat industry—and animal farming—profitable.

Many people are already familiar with the brutality involved in factory farming, but these industry standards only compound the immorality of killing an animal for our completely unnecessary and frivolous purposes. Leather is also sourced from other animals in lesser quantities. Pigs, goats, sheep and lambs, cats and dogs, deer, elk, buffalo, oxen, yaks, horses, kangaroos, snakes, alligators, elephants, ostriches, fishes, sharks, and even stingrays are all among the victims of the leather industry. The products that result from their deaths are generally used for clothing and will usually advertise themselves, since the “exotic” source of material is considered desirable. Slink, an exceptionally soft form of leather that is one of the most highly prized, is actually made from the skin of unborn calves.

Despite its ubiquity, leather is easily replaced with both natural and synthetic alternatives. The list of vegan textiles available is too numerous to list in full here, but includes cotton, denim, hemp, rubber, acrylic fiber, etc. If you really want the look and feel of leather, synthetic pleather is an option.

Note: There is some debate as to whether vegans should be promoting or endorsing textiles that approximate the products of violence, and this is certainly a question worth considering. As with faux meats, it is likely that pleather will be most useful as a transitional product.

What should new vegans do with their pre-owned leather items? We here at Gentle World are firm believers that the only appropriate action is to give these items a decent burial. They are, after all, someone’s body parts.

As always, when replacing these items, we recommend buying all items second-hand, to lessen the environmental impact of even your vegan purchases.

However, if you are unable to do this, it has become much easier to find vegan clothing at virtually any apparel outlet, although reading labels is always well-advised. As people evolve toward greater awareness and sensitivity to the rights of non-human animals, there is a greater demand for these products.

For those of us who feel strongly about supporting businesses that specifically promote nonviolence and veganism, there are several choices here as well, including online stores like MooShoes, Alternative Outfitters, VauteCouture, Herbivore Clothing, Vegan Essentials, and an ever-growing number of others.


By Christine Wells, Gentle World


From blouses to sarongs, suits to ties, and lingerie to pajamas, silk is still widely used by the textile industry, finding its way into sheets and pillowcases as well as handkerchiefs and headscarves. What some people may not be aware of, however, are the less-obvious places silk shows up, including parachutes, bicycle tire casing, cigar bands, replacement heart valves, and sutures for surgery.

We tend to associate silk with the silkworm due to the fact that, in its production, silkworms are killed by the hundreds of millions every year. However, silk is a fiber naturally produced by a number of different insects, including spiders, whose silk reserves have also been exploited in medical and military experiments.

Although synthetic silks made from lyocell (a type of cellulose fiber) can be difficult to distinguish from the real thing, sadly, the archaic practice of using silk from insects remains as common as ever.

Just prior to their metamorphosis into moths, Bombyx mori pupae spin silk fibers to weave their cocoons. In nature, the moth chews his or her way out of the cocoon once the transformation is complete. But in the fabric industry, silk is mass produced through the breeding and domestication of silkworms on what are essentially moth factory farms. When the caterpillars enter the pupa stage of their development, their cocoons are plunged into boiling water. This kills the silkworms and begins to unravel the longer fibers.

Approximately 15 silkworms are killed to produce a single gram of silk. Although it is very occasionally harvested after the moth has broken free, the strands are considerably shorter and the finished product is not commercially viable on a large scale.

There are other methods of producing silk that do not result in the death of the insect; however, there are still ethical issues to be considered. “Ahimsa silk,” for example, is made from the cocoon of the Bombyx mori moth after the moth has chewed through and discarded it. The silkworms used in this method of production are still domesticated and, just like other domesticated farmed animals, are bred for the purposes of production at the cost of their own health and well-being. The adult moths cannot fly because their bodies are too large and the adult males cannot eat due to underdeveloped mouth parts. The same would be true of moths in large commercial operations, but they are killed before reaching adulthood.

Abstaining from silk, like honey, may draw pause from new vegans. Do insects feel pain? Is it important for humans to consider the interests of insects against our own? Do insects have interests? It’s true that the depth of our understanding is limited about these issues, but that does not mean that we should ignore the moral concerns such questions present. Surveying the opinions of “experts” will yield mixed results, but any objective observer can see that insects react to stimuli, pursue pleasure, and flee from threat.

We should not remove insects from moral consideration just because our knowledge about these tiny beings is incomplete. Being vegan is about embracing a worldview that is starkly different from the dominant premise that other beings exist simply to fulfill human desires. The reality is that we do not need to exploit insects, and there is no justification for using them as a resource for our own ends.


Down is the name used for the body feathers that help keep ducks, geese and other water birds warm. It is commonly used and promoted as a “natural” stuffing for warm clothing and bedding, as well as frequently being used to fill pillows, cushions, and other such items.

It takes the down from approximately 75 + birds to make an average comforter.

Ducks and geese are the primary animals used for down production, but they are not generally raised solely for their feathers. They tend to be raised and used for eggs, meat or foie gras (fatty liver from force-fed ducks and geese). Much like the relationship between veal production and the dairy industry, there is a strong link between foie gras and down.

How are feathers removed?

Regardless of the removal method, any purchase of down or feathers funds the animal exploitation industry, including the meat and egg industries to which this product is directly tied. And whether gathered or plucked from live birds, or stripped from dead ones, all down production leads ultimately to the eventual death of the birds involved.

Live Plucking

A goose or duck is restrained by his or her neck or wings as the “targeted feathers” are torn from their skin. When the skin rips during this process it is sewn up with a straight needle (no anesthetic or sterilization used) and the bird is left to recover before the next “harvest of feathers.” This process is repeated every 6-7 weeks before the bird’s eventual slaughter (or death from the trauma of the plucking process itself). In online videos of the live plucking process, the ducks and geese are shown struggling against their captors, honking and squawking throughout the plucking. After their chest is stripped of feathers, the birds are simply tossed to the floor where they struggle to stumble away, some with freshly sewn skin.

Gathering from Live Birds

In most operations, hundreds of birds have their feathers “collected” at one time. Even if all of the birds were, by some bizarre coincidence, at the same stage of molting, their feathers mature at different times on different parts of the body, so some feathers are likely to be “live plucked” by “accident” during this process as well.

Post mortem (after slaughter)

For this method, feathers are removed from the birds’ bodies after they are killed for their flesh and/or internal organs (foie gras). The process usually involves scalding the birds’ bodies in hot water for one to three minutes so the feathers are easier to pull out. The body feathers can then be plucked (often by hand), after which the down is removed by hand or machine.

The methods of catching, carrying and restraining birds is the same no matter whether the feathers are gathered or live plucked. The authors of an EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) study admitted that during the gathering process, bones and wings may be broken or dislocated and birds sometimes suffocate.

Most birds are probably live plucked many times before they are killed for their flesh or organs, and their down feathers are taken from them again and for the final time after death.


More than 50 million individuals are violently killed every year for their fur. The majority of these innocents are bred in captivity. In their natural habitat, their free-living cousins are very active, running miles a day. In fur farms, they’re confined to small, filthy, rusty cages where they go insane from boredom, pacing back and forth in endless desperation. The end of their psychologically intolerable lives usually comes from a brutal anal electrocution, neck breaking, violent beating, suffocation, or even being skinned alive.

For those fortunate enough to live their lives in nature, but unfortunate enough to be trapped, they die either of starvation or dehydration, or of a brutal beating or a bullet if the human trapper arrives before they die. The traps are so terrifying for those caught, that some animals have been known to chew off a limb in order to escape.

Even if those used for fur were given plenty of room to exercise, and even if they were painlessly killed (such as with with sodium pentobarbital, as terminally ill dogs are euthanized at the vet), it would still be a matter of basic justice and moral obligation to allow them to live their lives free from human exploitation.

There are plenty of very warm and durable synthetic alternatives for even the coldest extremes in temperatures and wind, making our use of fur that much more inexcusable and unjustified.



By Christine Wells, Gentle World