The History Of Silk
Silk has a long history, beginning in 3000 BC. Its value was quickly appreciated, becoming one of the most treasured products of the ancient world.
The discovery of silk is attributed to the Yellow Emperor's wife, the Empress Xi Ling (sometimes referred to as the Lady Hsi-Ling Shih) in 3000 BC. As she sat under a mulberry tree drinking tea, her respite was interrupted by a cocoon falling into her cup. As she removed the unraveling cocoon from her teacup, Xi Ling marveled at the delicacy of the threads. Realizing that the tree was filled with similar cocoons led to the beginning of the silk industry in China, at least according to legend.
In its early years, silk was reserved for the emperor, his family, and selected dignitaries. Eventually, its use filtered down to include most social classes and gained in importance, becoming the equal to gold in trading, paying debts, and assessing value. Intent on keeping the secrets of silk production (sericulture) to themselves, ambassadors went to far-away Persia, Baghdad, and Mesopotamia bearing gifts of silk. There was no intention of sharing the knowledge that made such a wondrous fabric but a keen desire to create a market for this product did exist.
As a result of international demand, the Silk Road was created, allowing merchants to travel across China and into other countries to trade this precious commodity. Border guards searched travelers for silkworms, eggs, and cocoons, executing on the spot any smuggler that they caught. Despite such measures, the secret did escape.
In 200 BC, when thousands of Chinese immigrants went to Korea, some of these immigrants began a silk industry there. In 300 AD, India began to produce silk although it is unknown exactly how. In 440 AD, a prince of Khoton married a Chinese princess, who despite being forbidden to betray the secrets of sericulture, managed to smuggle moth eggs in her hair. In one of the most successful ventures in smuggling, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian commanded two monks who were on their way to China to return with the treasured eggs. They did, in 550 AD, by hiding them in bamboo staves. Once back in Byzantium, the church overtook the production, changing it into an imperial monopoly. And by the time of the Second Crusades, Italy had become a large silk manufacturer. Through all of this time, though, Chinese silk remained of the highest quality. During the Middle Ages, a plague swept through Europe and killed the majority of silkworms, effectively eradicating the silk industry.
The production of silk is a labor-intensive process. Larvae of the Bombyx mori (a blind, flightless moth) are placed on bamboo trays and fed a never-ending meal of hand-harvested mulberry leaves. During this time, they must remain at a steady temperature and must be protected from any disturbance, whether it's loud noise or offensive odor. In the early days of production, the Emperor forbade any mention of death in the same room of the eggs, for fear that they would be too disturbed to work. Likewise, one could only whisper in the presence of these eggs for the same reason. The larvae spin their cocoons at six weeks. The cocoons are then lightly steamed in order to kill the pupae, dipped in hot water, and the threads are then unraveled. The threads are now ready to become cloth.
To get an idea of the numbers involved, one moth will lay approximately 500 eggs, equaling about 5 grams. It will take one ounce worth of eggs to produce 30,000 worms, eating a ton of mulberry leaves, to produce a mere twelve pounds of silk. Silk was the first miracle cloth: its fine weave makes it nearly waterproof and resistant to stains. Silk is light to wear in the summer but warm in the winter. The sheen of silk, which greatly adds to its appeal, remains, no matter what color it is dyed, but is beautiful in its undyed state as well. No wonder it has been a mainstay of fashion for the last 5000 years.