Vegetarian Society Information Sheet On Clothing

Animal Derived Products: – Alpaca – Angora – Cashmere – Down and Feathers – Fur – Leather – Mohair – Silk – Wool – Felt

Plant Fibres: – Cotton – Linen – Rayon – Synthetics

Animal-Derived Products


This fibre – it’s a hair rather than a wool – comes from the alpaca, a relative of the llama, domesticated in the Andes for over 6000 years.


Angora is a fibre obtained from a special breed of rabbit. China and South America provide the bulk of the trade, which amounts to 4000 tonnes a year. The rabbits are not killed for their wool, but sheared regularly. Each rabbit will give between 200g and 1500g of wool a year. However, they are kept in cages in much the same way as rabbits bred for meat, and as they have a longer commercial life than meat rabbits, their suffering might be said to be even worse. Males have only about 75% of the wool yield of females, so are often routinely killed at birth.


Genuine Cashmere must be one of the most expensive fibres there is. It comes from the underbelly of a special breed of Himalayan goat (it’s the animal’s natural protection from the severe cold) and it is obtained by combing each goat by hand during the moulting season. One goat yields only about 4oz of cashmere per year and on average, it takes the yield of three goats to make one sweater. Of the world’s cashmere 85-90% comes from China.

Down & Feathers

Many duvets are filled with down, the very soft feathers from the breasts of geese and ducks. Chickens and turkeys don’t produce down. Down can be obtained by plucking, but over 90% is a slaughterhouse byproduct, and even the birds that have been plucked end up on the table soon afterwards. Most down is produced in the Orient, Canada and Europe.

Beauty Without Cruelty charity reports (summer 1992) that in Hungary, France, Israel and China, live geese have their feathers ripped off, a process that may be repeated every 8 weeks for about 3 sessions until the bird is killed for food or force fed to make pate de foie gras.

The female eider duck plucks down from her breast to line her nest After the chicks have grown up and abandoned the nest, the down can be collected by anyone brave enough to face the climb up the cliffs! A pound of eider down sells for 300 dollars so it’s not easy to find items made from down collected in this way.

Ostriches are farmed for meat, leather, eggs and feathers. In 1982 South African farms produced 741,000lbs of feathers worth 2 million pounds (figures from Turning Point, Aug 91). The feathers are plucked from breeding birds every nine months or so. A British producer describes how birds are immobilised in a wooden V shaped crush, while feathers are cut off. The quills are left behind to die and fall out. In the wild, ostriches live for about 75 years; ostriches farmed for meat, leather and feathers are slaughtered at 12-14 months and so enjoy just a fraction of their normal lifespan. Their natural habitat is the open plains of Africa where they can run at speeds of up to 40mph. Farmed ostriches are kept in pens of quarter to half an acre per pair and in America, may be kept in truly intensive conditions, ie indoors.


Most people know about the cruelties involved in obtaining fur. The animals are either trapped wild or farmed. Both methods of production involve cruelty. Wild trapping can mean endangered species being wiped out, besides the individual suffering of animals caught in steel-jawed leghold traps. Some animals go to desperate lengths to escape, often gnawing off part of their own leg or paw. The traps do not discriminate, so other animals may also be destroyed or maimed, including some domestic animals. As many as 50% of the animals caught in traps will be no use to the fur trade, which refers to them as “trash animals”. Farmed animals, principally mink and arctic fox, are kept imprisoned all their lives in tiny cages. Fur farming is a vast industry with more than 40 million animals being raised in intensive conditions, mainly in North America and Scandinavia. Consider what it must be like for a creature like the arctic fox, which naturally roams a territory of about 15,000 acres, to spend its life in a cage measuring just a few cubic feet.

Animals like mink are often introduced into a country by accident when they escape from fur farms, posing a threat to native wildlife. For example, it was reported in New Scientist (30.3.91) that water voles in North Yorkshire are under threat from mink who not only prey on them but also take over their breeding sites. The mink population is increasing but the future looks bleak for the voles. In Britain, there is no legal requirement for the farmers to be trained in methods of slaughtering their livestock.

More Information:

  • Operation Fur Factory, PO Box 87, Rochdale, Lancs, OL16 1AA.

  • No Fur Campaign, WSPA, Park Place, 10 Lawn Lane, London, SW8 1UD. Tel: 071 793 0540

  • Respect for Animals, PO Box 500, Nottingham NG1 3AS.


Should vegetarians wear leather? That’s a question we hear all the time. Some people think it is OK because leather is just a by-product of the meat industry and the animals weren’t killed just for their skins. Others seem to believe that there’s a strong chance the animal died naturally. But neither excuse really holds water. Very few farm animals in this country ever reach the natural end of their lifespan, most are killed when they are little more than adolescents. The remaining ones go for slaughter because they are worn out by a lifetime of continuous breeding and/or lactation and artificially heightened fertility. The leather we like best, soft leather, doesn’t come from old cows at all, it comes from calves and the softest leather of all comes from unborn calves whose mothers have been slaughtered. And leather might be just a byproduct, but it’s a very important one for the meat trade. About 10% of the value of the animal at the abattoir is in its skin, worth about 650 million pounds a year in the UK, so by buying leather, we are helping to support the meat industry.

Domestic animals aren’t the only ones to be used for leather production, the list includes deer, alligators, crocodile, toads, ostriches (see under DOWN & FEATHERS), kangaroos, lizards, snakes and seals (see The Cull of the Wild). Many of these are already endangered species but the high prices commanded by their skins make it very tempting for impoverished natives to poach. And although we are far from convinced that death in a slaughterhouse is humane, some attempt at least is made to stun the animals first. Wild species killed for leather have no protection at all, they may be clubbed to death or caught in cruel traps. A report in the American magazine Animals Agenda (March 1991) suggests snakes and lizards are routinely skinned alive because dealers believe this makes the finished skin more supple. Studies by herpetologists found that alligators and other reptiles could survive live skinning, taking nearly two hours to die afterwards.

Finding alternatives to leather is not quite as easy as finding alternative vegetarian foods, but we should certainly do what we can. For example, no-one needs to buy handbags, purses, wallets and belts made from leather, plenty of acceptable alternatives are available. Finding alternatives to leather clothing designed specifically for protection, like heavy-duty shoes and motorcycling leathers is not so easy but do keep on asking. It is very important to let manufacturers and retailers know that there is a demand for alternatives to leather.

Some people will say that leather is a natural, eco-friendly product but the leather industry is a major source of pollution. Tanneries are often sited near rivers as the process needs a plentiful supply of water and the waste – including hair, salt, lime, sludge, acids and chrome – is discharged into the river.

More information from:

  • Campaign Against Leather and Fur, BM 8889, London WC1N 3XX

  • See also Footwear & Alternatives to Leather.


This is the product of the white Angora goat. It’s a long fibre, coarser than cashmere. Very large herds of up to 20,000 Angora goats are kept in South Africa and Texas, purely for mohair production.


Silk comes from silkworms, which are not true worms but the caterpillars of the silk moth, Bombyx mori. The caterpillars will only eat mulberry leaves and when they are ready to pupate, they protect themselves by spinning the silk round and round themselves to form a cocoon. Typically, each worm produces a mile and a half of continuous thread. When metamorphosis is complete and the moth is ready to leave its cocoon, it secretes an alkali which eats its way through the thread. This spoils the thread for spinning as it is no longer continuous. So, in order to get good quality silk, the moths must be killed before they leave the cocoon. This is done by suffocation with steam or heating them in an oven. Only a small number necessary for breeding the next generation are allowed to complete their lifecycle. Whether or not the pupae feel any pain whilst being suffocated or subjected to heat is a debatable, but most vegetarians consider silk is not acceptable as it cannot be produced without the death of a living creature.


In Britain at least, wool production is just a byproduct of the meat industry, as British wool doesn’t command a high enough price to make it worth keeping sheep for their fleece alone. The sheep have to be sheared because the fleece gets so heavy and thick, they would suffer from heat-stroke during the summer if it were left on. However, this isn’t a natural condition. Wild species of sheep survive without shearing. Through generations of selective breeding humans have changed the characteristics of the fleece to suit themselves, not the sheep. British wool tends to be used for coarse fabrics like carpets. The fine wool needed for good sweaters etc comes from Merino sheep, a breed that originated in Spain but which is now kept in vast numbers in Australia. About 70% of the wool used for clothing comes from Australia, where the practice of mulesing, where folds of skin under the sheep’s tail are removed without an anaesthetic to form a wool free scar to discourage blow flies, is common. Approximately 27% of UK wool is skin wool, ie obtained from slaughtered sheep, mainly lambs.


Felt is a material produced by a process that mats and hardens the fibres. Felt is usually made from wool, but it can be made from fur. You should be careful buying a felt hat as it may be either. Rabbit skin is often the source of fur for felt hats.

Plant Fibres


Cotton is, of course, a plant product but there are various environmental considerations to be taken into account, like the heavy use of pesticides, dyes and other chemicals in the finishing process causing pollution. Cotton is the most widely used natural fibre, grown in 80 countries occupying 30 million hectares, it represents 5% of the world’s agriculture and uses 50% of the world’s insecticides, and has an annual value of 24 billion dollars. Cotton has been used as a textile in Asia and America since prehistoric times, but it did not become important in Europe until the 17th and 18th centuries. The biggest growers are China, USA, Soviet Union, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Turkey and Egypt. Pesticides are a particular problem in third world countries as peasant farmers dependent on cash crops can increase their yield by as much as 200% with only four applications. DDT is still used in the developing world where it is often too hot for the correct protective clothing to be worn. Instances of poisoning by insecticides are probably higher than reported. (Figures from The Guardian 29.10.90).

Unbleached cotton garments are quite widely available.


Linen is also a vegetable product, being derived from the Flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. Flax is one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants. The fibres are extracted from the plant by a process called retting.


The raw material for rayon is eucalyptus trees, but it requires chlorine in the early stages of production, which in turn causes pollution by organo-chlorine compounds including dioxin.


Synthetic materials are usually oil-based with about 25 thousand barrels of oil a day being used to manufacture materials. Oil is a non-renewable resource and the petro-chemical industry can cause serious pollution. Synthetics are not biodegradable. The production of nylon leads to large quantities of nitrous oxide being emitted. Nitrous oxide is one of the gases responsible for the greenhouse effect.


Many of these items originally appeared in classified ads of past issues of The Vegetarian and are provided here as a free source of information. This is not a commercial site and no payment is taken. It is not possible to say whether the information is still valid so each item is dated at the end.

Inclusion of items in this list does not imply endorsement by The Vegetarian Society UK unless stated otherwise.

The discounts mentioned are for members of The Vegetarian Society UK.

Join The Vegetarian Society to get the latest information and discounts.

Re-Viv, Phone Jane for a free colour brochure on: 01777 705557

Are you thinking about what you wear? Re-viv make traditional clothes and accessories including ‘Levi’ style jackets. Sloppy Joe jumpers, duffle coats and hats from 100% recycled yarn.

– The Vegetarian, Summer 1996

Woollibacks, Kate Schofield, 43 Blenheim Road, Cheadle Hume, Chesire SK8 7BD

Cruelty-free natural wool, hand-knitted from the fleece of rescued sheep. Garments, soft furnishings/yarns. Mail order only. SAE appreciated. For details

– The Vegetarian, Summer 1996

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