Shiny History of Silk
If you join me on walk through a market town along the route, past the myriad smells and the shadowy orange lights of market stalls, past the haggling merchants, weary soldiers and the sneaky pick pockets to the most popular stall of them all, you will find a secret...
It was the best kept secret of the ancient world; A secret that was the main reason for the commercial and cultural relationships between the east and the west in ancient times; A secret that made untold riches for those who knew; A secret that created a trade route across cold mountains, lush valleys and arid deserts to reach across to the west.
For over three thousand years, this was the main land route of commercial, cultural, scientific and religious transaction between the mysterious orient and the intrigued occident. Exotic towns sprung merely as a stopover for the caravanserai of merchants, opportunists, soldiers, monks and thieves, travelling from east to west.
They traded in gold and ivory, glass and lacquer, exotic spices such as pepper and nutmeg, fragrant items such as sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh. The people along this route traded stories and fables, myths and mysteries as well as knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine.
But if you join me on walk through a market town along the route, walk past the myriad smells and the shadowy orange lights of market stalls, past the haggling merchants, weary soldiers and the sneaky pick pockets to the most popular stall of them all, you will find the secret that accounts for the very existence of this 4000 mile route.
You will find the Chinese merchant unfurl bales of a material that carried a shine to the collective gasp of admiration from the crowd. You will marvel at the colour, sheen and the sheer luxury of the cloth. Should you manage to edge your way to the front and feel this cloth, you will get an amazing sensation between your fingers and the slightest hint of static as you rub this heavenly fabric. You will find the material that is perhaps the most expensive of all the items available in the market, for no one knew how it was made.
You will find Silk.
It is said that Empress Hsi - Ling accidentally discovered silk filament when a cocoon fell into a boiling hot cup of tea and she watched the filaments unfurl...
The Origins of Silk
No one exactly knows the origins of silk as it is lost in the hazy history of Ancient china. However, there are many myths and many legends around the discovery and invention of Silk. Archaeologists keep discovering silk fibres and remnants of material in tombs and excavations. There is evidence that silk existed as far back as 2750 BC in ancient China. It has also been found in India in the remains of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation from the third millennium BC.
The invention of silk is credited to Chinese empress Lei-Tzu (Hsi- Ling- Shih) wife of the emperor Huang- Li. According to legend, she is supposed to have accidentally dropped a cocoon on the silk-moth into a hot cup of tea and discovered that the pupa unfurled into fine thread several hundred yards long. She discovered this thread to be shiny and strong and suitable for weaving.
So rather than get rid of the infestation of these caterpillars from the mulberry trees, she implored the emperor to foster the cultivation of the silk-worm. Thousands of cocoons were yielded leading to the birth of the Silk industry and the very science of silk farming, Sericulture.
The Chinese had monopoly over silk-farming and had years to cultivate, foster and perfect the science of sericulture. They invented wooden reels that were capable of unravelling the yarn, made looms to weave the thread into fabric and invented systems for dying and colouring the fabric in various shades.
Lei-Tzu became the Goddess of sericulture to the Chinese, and the story can be found in the writings of Confucius.
What is Silk?
Silk is a natural produce of the larvae of insects such as moths, bees and butterflies. It is also the product of webspinners such as Arachnidae ( Spiders). But it is only the natural silk produced by the species Bombyx Mori, a mulberry silk worm which is the larval stage of the moth is suited for making silk fabric of good quality. This is because the silk fibre secreted by this silk worm has a triangular cross section giving it a prismatic structure that reflects light much better than the rounded filaments of other silk producing worms.
It is these mulberry silk worms that are reared in sericulture. Although silk producers have tried to produce silk fabric from other wild silks such as bees, spiders and other moths, nothing comes close to the quality of Bombyx Mori. It remains the one and the original silk moth.
There non mulberry silkworms that also help produce varying qualities of silk such as Tassar (Antheraea Pernyi), Eri and Muga most of which are reared in India.
This moth as it is only reared for silk production is actually flightless and blind, which is rather sad, as it has lost its evolutionary instincts and is merely being bred for the sole purpose of producing silk.
The poor silk worm moth Bombyx Mori can neither see nor fly- it lives only to lay eggs and completes its life cycle.
The Life Cycle of Silkworm
The female moth lays around 500 tiny eggs after mating with the male. The eggs hatch to release tiny worms ( around 3.2 mm in length) that feed voraciously on the mulberry leaves.
The larvae soon increase their size up to a ten thousand fold ( 8.9 cm) due to their gluttonous feeding.
They have a unique horned tail and develop silk glands along their sides along with two spinnerets under their mouth. It is through these spinnerets that the silk filament is extruded when they are ready to enter into the pupal stage.
They move their heads side to side making a figure of eight and spin the filament around themselves, ready to enter into the chrysalis.
The reelable continuous filament can reach from 800 to 1200 yards in length. Once the pupa is complete it goes through the metamorphosis and emerges by rupturing the cocoon as the adult moth.
If the cocoon is ruptured the filament breaks into hundreds of tiny short segments.The voracious appetite for all those mulberry leaves creates so much stored energy that the caterpillar is able to spin this continuous filament without stopping - a phenomenal display of industriousness.
A silk cocoon can unravel into 600 - 900 meters of continuous filament.
The Science of Silk
The sericulturists wait till the cocoon is complete and then collect them in thousands to boil them or steam them to extract the filament unruptured. The filament is then spun with others to make silk thread which is then ready for the loom. The cultivated silk is far better due to the continuous filament and also yields better to the dyeing process. The process of collecting and grading the cocoons prior to boiling them happens in a filature.
The silk filament is made of strong central protein called fibroin that is surrounded by a gummy sericin that hardens as soon as it is in contact with air.
During the initial stages the soaking of the cocoon helps to lose some of the sticky sericin but most of is it retained to help with the process of reeling, throwing and forming skeins of silk thread. Throughout the process the sericin is gradually removed by soaking in warm soapy water at various stages to deliver a superior, distinctive, shiny fabric.
The fibre has very high tensile strength due to the tight packing of the amino acids in the protein fibroin. The fabric itself has tight bonds and is resistant to many acids but does go weaker when wet.
The specially bred silk worm Bombyx Mori produces filaments that have a triangular cross section with flat sides. This gives the fibre a prismatic ability to reflect light...
The Silk Road
The Silk Road
For centuries the Chinese successfully hid the secret of silk making despite attempts at espionage by westerners. Although silk fabric is quoted in Egyptian, Greek and Roman literature ti took a while for the secret of silk to dissipate. The Punishment for any attempts to smuggle the secret was death.
In China Silk rose to mythical proportions and during a period was even used as currency for paying officials. It was mainly worn by royalty before spreading out to be worn by others.
At first countries such as India and Japan learnt the science of sericulture and soon joined in on the eastern monopoly of silk production. The Silk road is not just a one road but constitutes of many land routes originating from China and leading to the Western Europe via many diverse geographical destinations that served as outposts and markets for the transfer of goods from the orient.
Many ancient cities blossomed through trade along this route. X'ian, Lanzhou, Wuwei, Turpan, Kashgar, Urumqi in ancient China. Delhi, Mathura, Taxila in India. Samarkand, Peshawar, Bukhara, Damascus, Smyrna all the way to Constantinople.
The Chinese silk trade blossomed during the Han dynasty ( around 206 BC) and the land route expanded around 4000 miles into the middle east via India and Afghanistan.
"I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes… Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body"— Seneca the younger ( Declamations Vol 1, BCE 65)
It is believed the great civilisations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Rome developed through the transmission of merchandise, knowledge and trade through the Silk Road. This makes it an important contributor to the development of humanity. The religious transactions resulted in the spread of Buddhism from a small area in North India to China, Korea and Japan via this route. However, many religious myths and legends got transmixed and now one can see so many similarities between the Greek and Roman myths and the Eastern legends.
The Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC led to further trading between the orient and the Roman empire. Rome went crazy for silk and the government wanted to ban it as they were concerned about the amount of gold and silver that went pouring out of Rome so the citizens could enjoy the luxury of silk.
The Silk Road ran more than a quarter of the size of the equator and influenced civilisations to seek out new worlds. Marco Polo traveled along this road and then set out to find a quicker and easier sea route. Columbus set out to seek the route to East by going in the opposite direction ( with little knowledge of another continent that lay in between - the New World)
An ancient Chinese Princess got married to a prince in the west. She took silk worm eggs in her elaborate head dress as her gift to the prince. The priceless secret of those times...
The Secret is Stolen
For years the secret of silk was contained. The Greeks and Romans referred to the Chinese as Seres or ‘people of the silk’
There are many stories on how the secret of silk was stolen by other countries. It is believed that a Chinese princess transported silkworm pupa in her elaborate head dress when travelling to Korea and Japan. The Indian subcontinent learnt of the sericulture through travellers and through the maritime routes.
It is believed that two monks who travelled the silk road brought back the secret of Silk to emperor Justinian of the Byzantine empire ( 552 CE) by secreting the silkworm eggs in their bamboo walking sticks. Sericulture soon travelled from the Byzantine Empire to the Arabs and eventually to the Italians.
The Arabians spread Sericulture to Spain and Northern Africa. It wasn’t until the middle ages that Europe began to see a boom in sericulture and silk production in Italy, France and Britain.
The Wonder of Silk
Apart from its lustrous nature and the natural regal shine, silk fabric is also very tough natural fibre. It is shiny but not slippery and is a poor conductor of electricity.
- It keeps the skin warm in cold weather by retaining heat and yet is cooling in warm weather making it an ideal year round fabric to wear. It is kind to the skin and forms an excellent material for under garments.
- It has been used to make shirts, blouses, dresses, kimono, handkerchief, scarves and lingerie.
- Its attractive shine also makes it a luxurious house furnishing material for cushions, upholstery, bedding and wall hangings.
- Highly decorative pieces such as flowers look good made from silk
- Silk has also been used as non-absorbent surgical suture ( not much anymore) and in the manufacture of insulation, parachutes and armoury before the artificial fibres gradually took over.
- The Chinese used silk infused paper as luxury writing material.
- There has been a recent resurgence of interest in using special silk undergarments and bandages for eczema sufferers.
- Silk bedding is considered hypo-allergenic as dust mites find it hard to live and breed on silk material - this is great for allergy sufferers
- The high amino acid content of silk has been considered by Chinese as beneficial to the skin and helps reduce wrinkles
Sleeping on silk is good for your hair and is also supposed to reduce the appearance of wrinkles- no more bad hair days and wrinkly skin!
Animal rights controversy
As always any process that involves killing millions of insects attracts the wrath of animal rights activists who have condemned the process of killing the chrysalis by boiling the cocoons. These silk worms are farmed heavily and any process where the moths are allowed to emerge will destroy the quality of silk. Wild silk produced by non cultivated silk moths and spiders just doesn’t cut it in the quality department.
There have been recent studies in the silk fibre and the silk worm genome to mimic the natural processes without interfering in the life cycle of the silk worm.
However should the silk worm be abandoned from cultivations, it may not survive in the wild as it has lost many evolutionary advantages as a domesticated species.
The silk worm larvae form an excellent protein rich diet once the cocoon is extracted. the Koreans eat this as a highly flavoured boiled delicacy called Boendaegi.
Major Silk Producing Countries
Production ( 1000 kg)
Peoples Republic of China
Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea
The weight of silk is measured in 'mm' often called 'mommy' - the weight varies with different types of silk. The different weaves of silk and the source filaments can make the end product rich and lustrous or cheap and course. There are many popular varieties of silk you may have heard of. Here are some listed:
Different Weaves of Silk
Type of Silk
Lightest and most diaphanous of Silks. Voluminous and helps create billows that add dimension.
Lightweight, sheer and the original chinese weave. Also called habutia or pongee. Better for scarves and decorative accessories not suitable for fitted dresses. 5 - 8 mm
Crepe de Chine
A 'Pebbly' look by twisting fibres counter clockwise - great for drawstring purses, scarves etc. 12- 15 mm
Good for blouses & lingerie - has a flattened crepe back and shimmery satin front surface. also for scarves, headgear and handkerchief.
Heavier, denser with alternating shiny and matte weaves.
Heavy, stiff and good for semi fitted vests and dresses.
Made from shorter fibres, stiff and coarse and not shiny but has all other qualities
Wild silk, ruptured cocoons hence rougher and not easy to dye. But cheaper.
Caring For Silk
- As Silk is a natural protein very much like human hair it does take some looking after.
- Some silk material can be hand washed- use mild detergents ( even shampoo) and do not twist ( just like hair) gently rub or roll a towel over to remove moisture.
- Most silk garments are best dry cleaned- they can withstand high temperatures
- Silk is not very elastic and can lose shape if under extreme stress although it is a strong natural fibre
- Moths are attracted to silk (!) so protect well and store safely
- Never use chlorine or bleach - this will discolour and destroy the fibres
- Avoid drying in sun- they discolour with constant exposure to sun- so for the same reason make very poor curtains or draperies unless lined on the exposed side by other material and used indoors as wall hangings.
The Silk Road Paintings of Li ShanClick thumbnail to view full-size
Surely every wardrobe deserves some silk in it. How can we not - it has such a rich history, such industrious creation and has so many benefits to the human skin.
It also looks rich and colourful, flows naturally and is a sensuous fabric to wear.
If you haven't already got some silk, go out and buy some. Maybe a dress, a scarf, a tie, some sultry lingerie or even a small silk hanky.
And while you caress it and feel the luxurious sheen, consider the journey of silk and its rich history.
The slip of a hand that caused a cocoon to fall into a hot cup of tea; the unravelling filament catching the light and reflecting it to catch the ye of an empress; the industrious sericulture; the allure of the shimmering fabric as it is transported to the markets of the west; the trade route that soon become the information superhighway of the ancient times...
And consider the humble Bombyx Mori, flightless and sightless but giving away the most wonderful filament that delights many.
It is more than just a fabric. You are touching timelines and tapestries that conjure up a world of discovery and drama. Such is the shiny history of silk.
A Silk Quiz
© 2011 Mohan Kumar
More by this Author
The complete history of the toothbrush from its ancient origin to modern incarnations. Yes, the humble toothbrush.
There was a boy who lived in the street next to us where I grew up and he was a kite flyer. He was a good flyer and he participated in kite fights. He handmade his own kites and I used to go and watch him. He would use...
Everything you need to know about licorice (or liquorice): Where it is from, what is it used for, and its health benefits and dangers.