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Shiny History of Silk

Updated on November 14, 2016
Docmo profile image

Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.

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...

The Road

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.

Silk Road  painting by Zhang Hongnian ( 1947-)
Silk Road painting by Zhang Hongnian ( 1947-)

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.

Empress Hsi -Ling, Goddess of Silk
Empress Hsi -Ling, Goddess of 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.

Bombyx Mori
Bombyx Mori

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.

Life cycle of Bombyx Mori
Life cycle of Bombyx Mori

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.

A Japanese triptych on silk production-  look from right to left!
A Japanese triptych on silk production- look from right to left!
Magnified 1300 times a cross section of silk fibre
Magnified 1300 times a cross section of silk fibre

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)

Emperor Justinian receives silk eggs from the monks
Emperor Justinian receives silk eggs from the monks

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...

Painting by Karl Bang
Painting by Karl Bang

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.

Wedding flowers made of Silk
Wedding flowers made of Silk
Thai Silk Wall hangings
Thai Silk Wall hangings

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!

Silk Couture Dress
Silk Couture Dress
Silk worm larvae over mixed greens - Korean delicacy
Silk worm larvae over mixed greens - Korean delicacy
Silk worm larvae on a skewer
Silk worm larvae on a skewer

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.

cocoons galore!
cocoons galore!

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.
China silk
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, head gear 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 Shan

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The seasons coming again when the flowers flourish in the plateauJourney through Tian ShanPacking for the trip
The seasons coming again when the flowers flourish in the plateau
The seasons coming again when the flowers flourish in the plateau
Journey through Tian Shan
Journey through Tian Shan
Packing for the trip
Packing for the trip

Enjoy Silk

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.

-Mohan Kumar-

Silk worm ( Bombyx Mori)
Silk worm ( Bombyx Mori)

© 2011 Mohan Kumar


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      it so cool

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Wow, such a rich history! Although I can "see" why animal activists would be pissed off with the killing of million silk worms and other insects; they have been cultivated and used for thousands of years. Why stop the process now? It seams to me that, without Silk, we wouldn't be where we are today in the world.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Wow! Love a response like that for a hub.. really glad this brought you info, memories and stories. Love the ' ooh it feels friendly' line. Thank you so much for your comment - it really did make my day ( its my birthday!)

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Mary- my OCD research head doesn't let any detail go.. so I wanted to pack as much as I can for a 'definitive' hub- certainly not what HP advises! Thanks a lot.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Nell- thank you for your comment. I really do love the story of the silk road and its influence on culture and civilisation...

    • Teylina profile image


      7 years ago

      Docmo, so very, very glad this showed up on my site, or I might have totally missed a favorite subject! Your hub is so awesome, I have nowhere to even start with accolades! I have worn silk for many years, as my skin is sensitive, not dyes, but often materials, and even more so to the way they are produced. I needn't tell you how much this hub meant to me! As a side-point, I will say I lost a fabulous silk blouse I wore for years -- you are right -- practically indistructible! -- because the cleaners was unaware of a think semi-silk piece in the collar! I was sick. Voted up, up , awesome and away with the wind it feels like! I'll sum up this litany with many thanks for the pictures and fantastic layouts and share my late husband's comment about a new silk garment I would buy. He'd rub against it like a cat and say, "Oooh, that feels friendly!" -- Thanks so much for the education-- learned so much about a favorite subject! -- (and the memories)== Fantastic hub!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      My goodness, you sure packed a lot in info into this Hub. I never knew exactly how silk was made, now I think I do.

      Beautiful photos on the subject, too.

      I voted this UP, etc. and will share and tweet, Mary

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      7 years ago from England

      Wow! such a detailed explaination of silk, so interesting. I remember learning about the Silk Road back at school but never really took it all in, amazing hub, voted up and tweeted! nell

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Ishwaryaa- thank you for your visit and comments!

      Jools99- really appreciate your visit and thanks for the pimp! Ever so grateful.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools Hogg 

      7 years ago from North-East UK

      Wow, Docmo, this is an amazing hub, so interesting and comprehensive and also, amy I say, beautifully formatted - a pleasure to read from start to finish!

      Voted up n shared.

    • ishwaryaa22 profile image

      Ishwaryaa Dhandapani 

      7 years ago from Chennai, India

      Wow! What an engaging & educational hub on silk! I & women in my family loved silk! They are very beautiful and make women look elegant. Your explaination on Silk invention, its history, sericulture, cycle of the moth & silkworm, Silk route, uses of silk and all are extremely detailed and well-elaborated! Well-done!

      Thanks for SHARING. Pressed all the buttons(except funny-sorry). Voted up & Socially Shared.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      8 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Ah! Memories. When I was a boy we always knew someone who had some silkworm eggs and we would buy or borrow or... and there were always mulberry trees that we could go and ask "the lady" if we could have mulberry leaves. There were two types of silkworms, the white (creamy really) and there were black and cream striped ones.

      Great hub'; so much research. Thank you.

    • RalphGreene profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for sharing, And BTW, great hub.

    • Vinodkpillai profile image


      8 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Thanks Docmo for a comprehensive write-up on silk!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      DDS, Fay, drbj, Sunnie,Eiddwen, Clairepeek, Cogerson, Ruby, Mimi721wis, Kathi, Peter- I was away teaching for a few days and it is nice to come back to these wonderful and complimentary comments. You are all the best in class - Everything that this humble teacher would want! Thank you all.

    • PETER LUMETTA profile image


      8 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

      Very good information and well said. I've seen the process in person here in Thailand and even in the states. Really enjoyed the history. visit my stories if you have time, some are similar to yours in style. Bravo!

    • Fossillady profile image


      8 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      I agree, with Ruby, you are one of the best on hubpages. Your articles are educational and informative. I loved reading about the silkworm and learned a lot. Everything about it was interesting, but especially the fact that the moth is blind and flightless because of human breeding. I didn't know it was good for your skin and allergies! Loved the outfits! Fantastic Docmo! I hope life is treating you well!

    • Mimi721wis profile image


      8 years ago

      I passed the quiz. I have learned quite a bit about silk.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      8 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Aha Docmo, I will never sleep on cotton again. I learned so much from this article. I loved watching the video of the cocoon spinning. I now have a new appreciation for silk. I must admit that i only scored 80% on the test. Thank you. You're one of the best on Hubpages.

    • Cogerson profile image


      8 years ago from Virginia

      Very fascinating information....I liked the chart you included about who makes the most silk.....if China makes the most....I bet the US uses the most.....great hub...voted up

    • Clairepeek profile image


      8 years ago

      Absolutely fascinating Hub Docmo!

      You made me travel the silk road and then feel a bit sad for the moth. I know now a little bit more about silk, but I am not such a good student since I scored only 70% on the quizz. Wonderful work.


    • Eiddwen profile image


      8 years ago from Wales

      Thankfully we are never too old to learn and I learnt so much from this one.

      Thank you for sharing.

      Take care


    • profile image

      Sunnie Day 

      8 years ago

      Awesome hub Docmo,

      You did a wonderful joy teaching us about silk. Most I never knew. Thank you for your hard work. up and awesome


    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      This was an exceptional lesson is silk culture, Docmo. Thanks for sharing your expertise in research and literary creation. Enjoyed every single word. Even though some of the worm photos were not particularly appetizing - to me. Rated up.

    • profile image

      Fay Paxton 

      8 years ago

      Excellent!! Your hubs are always an educational lesson. I guess I'm not the best student...I only scored 80%. I simply love Charmeuse.

      up/useful and awesome

    • DDS profile image

      David Sproull 

      8 years ago from Toronto

      Well done! Nice to see a hub that is legitimately educational. I always knew they only used silk from one kind of Caterpillar/moth but never knew why.


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