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What is the History of Silk?

A map of China, where silk originated.
Silk cocoons.
Silk fabric.
Silk comes from the cocoon of the silkworm.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 31 July 2014
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Silk is a remarkable textile, and it has a long and fascinating history. The secret behind silk production was successfully guarded by the Chinese for over two thousand years, making it one of the longest kept industrial secrets in the world. Far from being just a textile, this material is the stuff of legend, and it has been the basis of powerful political and economic empires all over the world.

According to the Chinese, the gift of silk was given to them by Xi Ling Shi. She was the wife of China's legendary Yellow Emperor, and one afternoon she was sitting underneath a mulberry tea when a silkworm fell into her tea. Her maid rushed to pluck the worm out, but instead she ended up unraveling it, and Xi Ling Shi came up with the idea of weaving the thread into a textile. Chinese legends place this event at around 2600 BCE, and archaeologists tend to agree that sericulture, the cultivation of the Bombyx mori or silkworm for textile production emerged at around the same time.

Sericulture is very labor intensive. 30,000 silkworm larvae eat one ton of mulberry leaves to produce 12 pounds (five kilograms) of raw silk. In the process, the silkworms must be carefully incubated at the right temperature, coddled with the choicest foliage, and eventually killed by being boiled so that the cocoons are left intact. Some producers allow the worms to emerge from the cocoons, although this damages the fibers.

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The sheer amount of labor involved made this material a luxury textile almost instantly. Only China's wealthiest citizens could afford it, and in fact, for centuries, only members of royalty were allowed to wear it. Even after the general public was grudgingly allowed to wear the textile, certain colors were reserved for royalty. Only the Emperor and Empress, for example, could wear this material in a specific range of yellows.

Until around the third century BCE, silk remained largely unknown outside of China. Around this period, production of the textile crossed to Japan, and the fabric began to appear in some parts of Europe. It quickly became legendary for its soft texture, immense textile strength, and incredible beauty, although no one knew how it was made. One contemporary historian who claimed to have observed the process said that it was produced by boiling leaves, which caused puffs of fiber to emerge for spinning.

In 522 CE, the Romans financed an act of espionage, sending spies into China to learn the secret of silk production, and silkworms were smuggled back to Europe. Sericulture in Europe began immediately, making the textile more accessible to Europeans, although it remained largely out of reach for most people until the Industrial Revolution, when advanced weaving techniques cut down on the cost significantly.

The Muslim empire also deserves some credit for the spread of this textile. Muslim traders brought this fabric and other goods from China in large amounts, and spread sericulture practices to India and some Muslim nations. Numerous fine works of art were produced in silk, including carpets that are famous for their durability and beauty.

By the 20th century, sericulture had once again confined itself largely to China and Japan. When the Second World War broke out, people outside of Asia had limited access to supplies, and several artificial fibers such as nylon were developed as alternatives.

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