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History Of Silk

Updated on October 22, 2011

The sheen of the fabric and the swish of the material is sure to turn heads. Silk today spells sheer luxury but when it was first made in Europe, it received an unsavoury response.

From the very start the Roman emperor Aurelian passed a verdict, declaring this slinky fabric decadent. He forbade women to wear it.

Then somewhere around 1570, one of France's lesser-known monarchs got held up for both his coronation and his wedding due to some last minute fussing over his cuff. He was on time, however, for his assassination, where he was struck down by a monk who was determined to free his country from this "Prince of Sodom with his court of silks."

In the olden days, only the nobles and very rich people could afford silk for their clothes. Associated with sensuality and extravagance, silk has come to attract a large following among modern women. Most at least own a silk scarf or a silk shirt.


Silk comes from silkworms, scientifically known as bombyx mori. With a small head of a drab grey colour, silkworms are unattractive to look at. After hatching from the egg, which is laid in batches of 400-500 in spring, it spends the first four or five weeks of its life eating. When they are about 8cm, which is their maximum size, they start the next stage of their lives and produce cocoons. The cocoon, they spin during the two weeks as a chrysalis, is pure silk.

The silkworm produces threads from two glands in its head. The threads mix with a gummy material which helps to form the cocoon by sticking the threads together. When the cocoon is formed it is 3cm in length. The silkworm then changes, inside the cocoon, first into a pupa and then into a moth.

In order to have complete cocoons from which to unwind the silk threads the pupa must be killed, because if it grew into a moth it would break the cocoon as it emerged, which would ruin it.

There are two main types of silkworms one feeds only on the tenderest mulberry leaves and is carefully tended at farms where the finest silks originate. "Wild" silkworms which produce a coarser fabric called tussah are raised randomly by villagers all over Asia who simply cultivate a few particularly appetising trees and plants. They turn the newly hatched worms loose, and hope they'll stick around. The silk produced is a coarse, tawny colour which is difficult to dye and is usually woven into blazers and suits.

Historically, Chinese chroniclers claim that silk was officially discovered in 2,640 BC by the empress Hsi Ling-Shih, who, during a stroll through a mulberry grove, had an idea that the cocoon could be unwound to produce a fine fibre. Till today, China remains the world's largest producer of raw silk. Japan has a huge silk industry but so great is the demand for the fabric there that the upper and middle-class Japanese customers buy it all up for kimonos.

Living with silk

Silk is the most favoured material for grand occasions and it's no wonder as few materials can match its lustre. In fact, silk is one of the best materials for printing because of it's smooth, absorbent surface. Besides its beauty, however, silk is also light. Due to its fine filaments, silk gives an exceedingly fine yarn which can be woven into gossamer-like creations such as scarves, lingerie and party dresses. It is also durable and because of its natural fibres it offers superb insulation.

The only drawback, perhaps, is the fact that the filaments are so delicate the material snags easily. But silk, like most precious objects, deserves the utmost attention and care. Some advice: some silks like crepe de chine, shantnug and silk noil are better hand washed than dry cleaned. Wash in cold water and don't squeeze or wring. Use silk or cotton thread to hem a silk dress.

Above all, don't be afraid to wear silks for it is actually a much sturdier material than it looks. Enjoy sashaying about in this well-deserved indulgence and luxuriate in it like the queens, empresses and duchesses before you.


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