The story of silk

Silk is one of the oldest fibres known to man. According to Chinese legend, the fibre was first discovered in 2640 BC by XiLingJi, the fourteen year old wife of China’s third Emperor – the so called ‘Yellow Emperor’- HuangDi. It is said that XiLingJi was having tea beneath a mulberry tree in the palace gardens, when a cocoon fell from the tree into her cup of tea. She noticed the cocoon start to unravel in the hot liquid revealing a long delicate thread. XiLingJi was so delighted by its beauty and strength that she had thousands of cocoons collected and woven into a robe for the Emperor.Whether or not this legend is true, it is certainly true that the production of silk, with its very special properties, originated in ancient China. They were well aware of the value of this material with its very special properties and kept the secret safe from the rest of the world – on pain of death – for more than 30 centuries.

The History of Silk

Silk has been regarded by the Chinese as the ultimate luxurious cloth for over 4000 years. Originally only the Emperor could wear it. Later high officials at court were granted the privilege. As production techniques improved, so its usage spread. At one point it was even recognised as a form of currency. China started to trade silk westwards when the trading route we now call The Silk Road opened in the 2nd Century AD. Over 4,000 miles long it followed the Great Wall of China, climbed the Pamirs mountain range, crossed Afghanistan and continued to the Levant, from where it was shipped across the Mediterranean.Sea

Silk had become a valuable commodity and in 550 AD Emperor Justinian of Byzantium sent two Nestorian monks to China to smuggle back some silkworn eggs and mulberry seeds. They succeeded, smuggling the cocoons in their bamboo walking staffs back from Khotan to Constantinople. The techniques of silk production only spread further west some 700 years later. France and Italy were the leading European manufacturers by the 15th century. Some of the Huguenots, having fled France and Flanders, set up a silk weaving complex at Spitalfields in London in the 1620s.

Silk Today

The silkworm, Bombyx mori, has been ‘domesticated’ for centuries. The production of silk is extremely labour intensive. Over three days the silkworn spins its cocoon, producing up to 950 metres of filament. From 5 to 8 of these filaments are twisted together to create a single strand. It takes approximately 6000 silkworms to produce 1 kg of silk after consuming 200 kg of mulberry leaves.

Silk filament is far stronger than cotton or wool, in fact as strong as steel of the same thickness. It is also lower in density than cotton, wool or nylon and as such is highly moisture absorbent – able to absorb up to 1/3 of its own weight in moisture without feeling damp. The subsequent evaporation of this moisture gives the silk its renowned breathable quality which enables it to keep the body at a constant temperature throughout the night – ‘warm in winter, cool in summer’.

Today silk, the finest of all natural fibres, is grown mainly in Asia, with China steadily regaining her traditional major market share by increasing production. The demand for silk has increased steadily over time, despite the inroads made by much cheaper man-made fibres. The fact is that because of its particular qualities, people prefer silk over almost any other fibre when circumstances allow. As prosperity spreads, so does the demand for silk.

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