The Amazing History of Silk fabric

Information about the historical context of silk, its impact on various civilizations, its economic importance, and stories related to silk throughout history.

Somethings never change – some inventions were and are still closely guarded secrets among countries. Silk was invented in China long ago, around 5,000 years ago. It was like a closely-held technological secret of today’s times, known only to the Chinese, and they kept its production process so shrouded in secrecy that no one outside of China knew how to make silk for close to 2000 years.

Origin Story of Silk

It is said that silk was first used around 2700 BCE

According to Chinese legend, the credit for discovering silk fabric goes to Empress Lei Zu. ( She is said to have lived around 2700 BCE during the Xia dynasty. ). She is credited with having figured out how to take silk cocoons and turn them into silk fabric.

One day, she was sitting under a mulberry tree, drinking tea, when a silkworm cocoon accidentally dropped into her tea. As she tried to take it out, the cocoon started to unwind, revealing a long, strong thread. She was amazed by its beauty and strength, so she began raising silkworms and turning this fiber into fabric. This is said to be the beginning of Sericulture, the science of raising silkworms to make silk.

Silk ribbons and woven fragments of silk cloth have been discovered in Qianshanyang in Zhejiang province (China) dated to around 3000 BC.  This seems to be one of the earliest examples of woven Bombyx mori silk.

For 2000 years no other country knew how silk was made – the cultivation of the worms, the process of creating the fabric from those fine fibers that emerged out of the silkworms – everything was closely guarded.

Silk Monopoly of China

In China, Silk wasn’t just used for making clothes. People used it for lots of stuff, like writing. Also, during the Tang Dynasty, the color of your silk clothes showed what social class you were in. They even paid tax with silk. 

They used special tools, like bone needles and looms, to make patterns on the fabric. They developed advanced techniques for reeling, spinning, and weaving silk fibers into silk fabrics of different patterns and prints. This silk fabric became famous for its beauty and was valued all over the world. But no one still knew what it was made of. They never suspected humble Bombyx mori of creating the most valuable fabric of the times.

silk kimono

The origin and flourishing of the silk-making industry in ancient China seem fascinating, but equally interesting is how silk conquered the world. It succeeded in connecting East and West in a fascinating exchange of culture and commerce. The way it inter-connected different countries and cultures together and made certain countries super-rich makes a good inspirational story.

Spying to find how Silk was made

Chinese immigrants brought the knowledge of the silk fabric to Korea and later countries in Asia like India found it out. The silkworms were smuggled out of China.

It is said that people tried all they could to find how silk was made in china. In the 6th century CE, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I is supposed to have sent two monks, disguised as silkworm merchants, on a mission to smuggle silkworm eggs and mulberry tree seeds out of China.

Around 300 AD, Japan started making silk. People in other parts of Asia, including India, Japan, and Korea, learned to make different types of silk. 

Ending the monopoly of China, the whole world woke up to the beauty of silk and its many variations. The trade routes followed by the silk became known as The Silk Road. The Silk Road’s origins can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) of China or even earlier.

The Silk Road was a vast network of interconnected trade routes that spanned across Asia, connecting the East to the West. Silk played a crucial role in this trade network, earning its name as the “Silk Road” because of its significance.

The sheer and glossy appearance of silk fabrics made them the favorite of upperclass. It is said that silk was as costly as gold.

Silk conquers the world – how silk changed history

Silk found its way into countries in the Middle East, Europe and North Africa like Greece, Italy,Turkey, Spain, Portugal, and France. By the thirteenth century, Italy had become a major center for silk production in the West.

Silk production became a major industry around the world, providing employment for many people.

The Byzantine Empire served as a crucial link in the Silk Road trade network that connected the East (China and India) with the West (Europe). The Byzantines recognized that silk was a highly prized commodity in Europe. They imported raw silk fibers from China and India and then used them to produce their own silk textiles. These textiles were highly sought-after throughout Europe and other parts of the Mediterranean world.

During the Crusades (Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th centuries), silk became a valuable and important commodity in Italian cities. Italian cities like Venice, Genoa, and Florence became key trading hubs for silks and other commodities imported from the East.

Later, the high demand for silk in Italy led to the development of silk production and weaving industries in cities like Venice and Florence. They invented cool things like the spinning wheel to make silk faster. The superior silks of the region made the people there rich because they sold their silks to other parts of Europe. Italy became famous as a center for fine silk craftsmanship during that era.

In the 17th century, Italians started weaving very glossy silk satin. This highly prized Silk satin was used to create a variety of fashionable garments during that time, including gowns, coats, cravats (neckties), and stockings.

During the 1600s, silk stockings became very popular in Europe, especially among the upper class men. Members of European royalty, including King Louis XIV of France, were known to wear silk stockings. Women reduced the hemlines of their gowns to show off their glossy silk stockings.

What happened to silk during the Industrial Revolution

When the Industrial Revolution happened, the way silk was made changed a lot in Europe. Cotton became cheaper to make than silk, so silk became less popular.

But they also made new machines like the Jacquard loom, which helped to make silk in different patterns and prints. One of the most important innovations made during this period was the mechanized spinning of silk.

Name des Zeichners nicht lesbar., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The spinning jenny, invented in 1764, allowed one person to spin multiple threads at the same time. This greatly increased the output of silk thread, and it also made it possible to produce finer silk threads. The power loom, invented in 1785, allowed silk to be woven much faster than it could be by hand. This led to a significant increase in the output of silk fabric. And made silk more affordable. And even the not-so-rich could buy and use silk clothes.

And, Now?

Silkworms only live in temperatures between 18°C and 25°C. So, the majority of silk production occurs in countries with climates that can support silkworm cultivation, such as China, India, and Brazil. This also means that silkworm rearing typically occurs during the spring and summer months when temperatures are within the optimal range.

Nowadays, other fabrics like nylon and polyester are more common and cheaper than silk. And there are many other fabrics which are as shiny and soft. Maybe even softer. When compared to other natural fabrics like linen, silk is costlier. When compared to synthetic fabrics like acetate, silk is costlier.

A Semi synthetic fabrics called artificial silk, re-named rayon was discovered to replace silk. Rayon has comparable softness to silk.

So, Silk is not as popular as a dressmaking fabric as it once was. But still, it is the first choice for special occassion wear, like a modern day silk dupioni wedding gown.

Today China and India together produce more than half of the world’s silk. China is the world’s largest producer of silk, followed by India. In India silk is mainly produced in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Other countries like Brazil, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan also have significantly important silk production industries.

Many people who object to the use of animal fibers proactively object to the use of silk products and advocate silk alternatives.

But, Do you know that the Silkworms only live for five days. The average lifespan of a silkworm is 6-8 weeks, but the adult moth only lives for about 5 days. But in that time, they lay 500 eggs and then pass away? A single silkworm cocoon can yield a silk thread that is approximately 1,000 to 3,000 feet (300 to 900 meters) long. For reference, an airport runway can be this long.

And, do you know that about 34 million people around the world depend on silk for their livelihood.

Reference : Silk history.

silk fabric

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Author: Sarina Tariq

Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.
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