Hands on History: The History of Silk
By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features
Have you ever felt the soft, slippery material called silk and wondered where it came from or how it is made? Well, let’s find out all about it today. Silk is a thin but strong fibre produced by silkworms. These worms spin silk for their cocoons. The fibre can be woven into a soft, smooth fabric – one that we see in many items of clothing today.
Where does silk come from?
Like all famous things, silk too has a story of how it came to be. According to a Chinese legend, the process of making silk cloth was first invented by the wife of the Yellow Emperor, Leizu around 2696 BCE The idea first came to her when she was having tea in the imperial gardens. A cocoon of a silk worm fell into her tea and unravelled. She noticed that the cocoon was actually made from one long thread that was both soft and strong – fit for weaving cloth. Thus, she taught China how to make silk.
Myths and legends aside, it is unclear how exactly the process of making silk was discovered, but it was first found in the Yangshao culture in China. So regardless, silk fabric was invented in Ancient China. In fact, silk played a very important part of their culture and economy for thousands of years. Silk cloth was extremely valuable in Ancient China. Wearing it was a symbol of status, and at first only members of the royal family wore clothing made of silk. Later, silk was also worn by nobility, but merchants and peasants were not allowed to wear it. Silk soon became a prized possession for the Chinese. When royals and nobles of other kingdoms came to know of this luxurious material, they all wanted some of it for themselves, and even offered very high prices for it. Thus began the Chinese trade in silk. However, the emperors of China wished to keep the process of making silk a secret. So much so that anyone caught telling the secret or smuggling silk worms out of the kingdom was put to death.
Silk was made from breeding special moths that created the quality silk they wanted. A single moth would lay around 500 eggs and then die. The eggs then hatch baby worms that are fed mulberry leaves for a month until they are fattened up. Once the worms are ready, they spin cocoons made of silk fibre. Once the cocoons are ready, they are steamed to kill the worm inside and then rinsed in hot water to loosen the threads. Women would then unwind the cocoons and then combine six or so of the fibres into long silk threads. These threads were then woven together to create a cloth. The cloth was then pounded to make it softer and smooth to the touch.
An age-old secret
If the silk process was such a big secret, how do we know of it today? Well, the Chinese managed to keep their secret for around a thousand years. After that, in 550 CE, the secret was out when two monks from the Byzantine Empire managed to smuggle some silkworms out of the country. They hid the eggs inside their bamboo walking sticks.
The Silk Route
The Silk Route or the Silk Road was an ancient trade route between China and the West. Good and ideas were carried through this route between the two great civilizations at the time; Rome and China. While silk went westward, wool, gold and silver came east. China even received Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism through this route. However, it was Chinese silk that first made this route famous, and gave it a name that we all know so well today.