The Stories of Silk through the ages

Sericulture – the making of Silk – is native to China. Indeed the very name ‘China’ is derived from the Romans’ name for the country. They called it ‘Ceres’.

Sericulture there started at least 5000 years ago. During this time the Chinese succeeded in domesticating the wild silk moth (Bombyx Mandarina). This tame one (Bombyx Mori) is now so dependent on man that it cannot even fly. The male moth is born without a proboscis, so it cannot even eat. All they males do in their short lives is mate. Some might say they can think of worse ways of life!

Here are a few achievements of Bombyx Mori:

  • It takes 5000 to 7000 cocoons to make a kilogram of raw silk.
  • A cocoon’s filament length can be anywhere from 300 to 900 metres long.
  • The majority of silk today is produced by Bomyx Mori, because the filament is smoother and rounder –albeit just triangular, which gives silk its sheen- than that of its wild cousins. This makes it easier to spin and weave without those slubs (bobbles in the material). Bombyx Mori feeds exclusively on White Mulberry. So when the material is honestly described as ‘Mulberry Silk’ you know that it was Bombyx Mori what done it.

The Parable of Silk

A father went on a journey, leaving his daughter at home. This daughter missed her father and asked their horse to go and find and bring him home. She promised the horse that she would marry him if he succeeded in his task. Which the horse duly did. However when the father returned, the daughter seemingly forgot her promise to the horse. The horse felt resentful and showed it. The father came to the defence of his daughter and killed the horse. He then hung up the horse’s skin in the house’s yard. This skin suddenly wrapped itself around the daughter and carried her off. A neighbour – or perhaps the daughter’s mother – then saw silk cocoon emerging from the skin and turn itself into a mulberry tree.

The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a parable is “Narrative of imagined events used to typify moral or spiritual relation” i.e. a morality tale. It’s unclear quite what the narrator was trying to get across with this parable. Was it the concept of ‘family honour’? The concept of interrelationships (cocoon –the seed, tree –the food, horse –the transport to market)? It’s open to great speculation, but almost all Chinese children are aware of the parable – or is it just a fable?

The Legend of Silk

The story goes that in around 2700 BC The Empress Leizu – or it might have been Si Ling Chi – was taking tea under a mulberry tree. A cocoon dropped from the tree into her teacup. The hot brew commenced to unravel the cocoon, and the making of silk was born. The Empress was married to the mythical –perhaps real- Yellow Emperor. She had the first silk garment woven for him. The garment was thought so special that only the Emperor himself could wear silk. This exclusivity lasted for thousands of years and out of mythology into the real world. Only the Emperor could wear yellow silk right up to the last of the Manchu dynasty in the early 20th century.

The Legend of Silk

The History of Silk

Perhaps the earliest history is a bit closer to myth than fact, but at least it sounds more credible than the parable. Chinese rulers were acutely aware of the value of keeping sericulture and all it entailed inside China itself. It could be used to buy off invading tribes or traded abroad for horses and precious stones. It was therefore a capital offense, not only for the individual miscreant, but for his entire family -even clan- to export silk expertise or silk worm eggs. However, around the time of Christ a Chinese princess was betrothed to the ruler of Khotan, to the West of Han China. The princess did not intend to do without her silk finery. So when she left for Khotan she smuggled silk worm eggs inside her hairdo. And so, for the first time, sericulture spread abroad.

Around 300 AD the Japanese managed to heist some silk worm eggs and to kidnap four girls who knew sericulture. The industry flourished there and experienced many a technical innovation. A lot of our current day silk vocabulary is Japanese, e.g. Momme (weight of silk fabric)

In 552 AD The Bysantine Emperor Justinian had silk worm eggs procured for him by itinerant monks who hid the eggs in their bamboo staffs. Thus sericulture spread throughout Europe over next centuries. Particularly in Italy and Lyon in France. In 1801 M. Jacquard invent his loom which made patterns in the woven silk.

Unfortunately silk worm diseases started to appear in France around 1845, because of the intensity of production and the lack of understanding about hygene. Thenceforth the European industry pretty well imploded.

Silk Today

Silk production is now around 250,000 tons p.a. and rising. This represents 0.5% of the world’s annual textile fibre production. The bulk of silk production has now reverted to China (C. 200,000 MT). Next up are India (C. 25 MT) followed by Japan, Brazil & Korea and some 35 other smaller producing countries.