Silk is an ancient textile. The origin of silk production is from China, as far back as the Neolithic period, the Yangshao culture around the 4th millennium BC. It seems silk came in before metal.
The production and use of silk was confined to the country of China until the opening of the Silk Road in the later half of the 1st millennium BC. At that time, the country had maintained a monopoly on silk for thousands of years.
During these periods, silk was not only confined to use for clothing but also used for different other applications like writings and others. Even the color of the silk worn was considered to be a guide for the social class of the wearer in the Tang Dynasty.
But what was this miraculous substance, and where did it come from? The secret of the silkworm was so closely guarded that revealing it was punishable by death. The textile was extremely valuable, not just for its quality, but because it could not be reproduced in the west.
Discovery and Production
The silk production process is called sericulture, which was discovered by China around 5,000 years ago. It was said that the princess Xi Lingshi identified that a thread could be produced with an unraveled cocoon.
When she was sitting under a mulberry tree and drinking tea, one such cocoon dropped into her tea, which gave her the idea of silk production. This cocoon, soft and white, had been spun by the silkworm Bombyx Mori. Such creatures lived on mulberry trees.
In the silk manufacturing process, some strict rules are followed to successfully complete the silk product. A constant and moderate temperature needs to be maintained to keep the eggs alive. The mulberry leaves are fed to the resulting silkworms, and they increase by 10,000 times in size because of their short lives of a single month.
- Marco Polo: From Venetian Merchant To Mongol Courtier, Or So He Claims
- The Tragic Love Of Yang Guifei and The Emperor Of China
After gorging themselves, they spin a cocoon around themselves over 3 to 4 days. A cocoon is then considered ready after 9 days. First of all, the cocoons are dipped in hot water so that filaments can be loosened and then unwound, and each cocoon can produce around 900 meters (2,950 feet) in a single thread.
Today, nearly 34 million people across the world depend directly on sericulture, and silk production offers a buffer against poverty in rural areas or communities. India and China are considered to be the major silk-producing countries, but a significant role is also played by the countries like Thailand, North Korea, Brazil, and Vietnam.
How did the Secret Get Out?
The Chinese authorities closely controlled and guarded the sericulture technique and process secretly because the silk was exclusively discovered and reserved for the ruler’s use. If anyone smuggled the cocoons or silkworm eggs or revealed the secrets outside of China, they would be sentenced to death.
Because of its value and its artificial scarcity, silk was considered to be a prized export for all Chinese people. At that time, silk was highly in demand among the kings and nobles of foreign lands, and they were ready to pay a high cost for the silk cloth.
Therefore, the Chinese rulers do not want to reveal their secrets to others and make more income from their silk production. Overall, China wanted to dominate the world in silk production.
In 552 AD, the secret of silk was finally revealed to the west when two Nestorian monks from Byzantium were sent to central Asia by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The monks had wooden staves as walking aids with specially hollowed compartments hidden inside.
Silkworm cocoons were smuggled out of China hidden in these compartments, with live silkworm grubs inside. The secret was finally out, and silk production was brought to the Byzantine Empire. But in truth the monks already knew about the grubs, and the secret had been slowly leaking long before this.
- The Secret of Greek Fire: A Dark Age Flamethrower?
- Dead Stoned: Why Was This Man Buried in a Shroud of Marijuana?
The cultivation of silk spread to Japan in approximately 300 AD, fully two centuries before the Byzantines were able to start the cultivation of silkworms and obtain silkworm eggs in 522 AD. During the same period, silk manufacturing was also started by the Arabs.
This resulted in the sericulture spread that reduced the demand for silk from China. Moreover, silk production had also reached western Europe and many Italian states because of the Crusades. It resulted in an economic boom for the rest of Europe through the export of silk.
During the Middle Ages, many changes have taken place in manufacturing techniques. At first, the appearance of devices like spinning wheels was observed. France joined the developing process of the silk trade with Italy to make it successful during the 16th century.
The silk industry experienced many changes because of the industrial revolution. It has been identified that the rate of cotton had become cheaper for the manufacturers because of the spinning cotton innovation, which resulted in less mainstream, more expensive silk production.
At that time, the efficiency of production was increased with the new weaving technologies. The introduction of the jacquard loom was very helpful in developing silk embroidery work. However, silk production had a fall in France because of the epidemic of several silkworm diseases. It had never recovered the industry successfully.
Therefore, China and Japan regained their earlier silk production role in the 20th century. Presently, China has again acquired the largest silk producer in the world. Previously, the prevalence of silk production has been reduced with the increasing demand for new fabrics like nylon across the world, but now the scenario has changed again, and silk has become a rare luxury good.
But all of this because of a little grub of a nondescript moth, one which only ate mulberry leaves and whose cocoon only lasted a few days. For some, it is a miracle that silk was discovered at all. It seems almost the perfect disguise for such an exotic and unusual textile, to come from such an unexpected source.
Top Image: China kept the process of silk manufacture a secret for thousands of years. Source: Neri Oxman / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Bipin Dimri