– by Mark MacDonald–
Chinese legend speaks of Empress His Ling Shi who, while sipping tea under a mulberry tree, accidentally discovered one of the world’s most important fibres. As the story goes, a cocoon fell from the tree into her cup and began to unravel. Enamored by the shimmering threads, the Empress discovered the source, the silkworm, and soon their cultivation began. Whether or not the legend is true, the production of silk dates back thousands of years, and came to influence the human dynamics of our world.
For thousands of years, silk making (sericulture) was a secret kept by Chinese emperors, and it was strictly forbidden to trade silkworms to foreign lands – an offence punishable by death. The moths used in the production of the fiber were native to China, aiding that country’s monopoly of silk. The moth’s eggs produce larvae that voraciously consume mulberry leaves before entering the cocoon stage. The silkworms then produce a jelly-like substance from their glands to spin a puffy-looking cocoon around themselves. Care must be taken to ensure the worms are protected from strong smells and loud noises during this process. After just over a week, the cocoons are steamed or baked in order to kill the worms and cultivate the filaments, which are unwound onto a spool.
This process remained hidden from the rest of the world for thousands of years until, in the sixth century AD, silkworm eggs were smuggled by two Nestorian monks to Byzantium and brought to Emperor Justinian’s court. Soon, silk production spread across the Middle East and Europe, the fiber becoming a valuable commodity traded across distant lands.
The Silk Road
An ancient network of trade routes stretching from China to the Middle East and beyond, the Silk Road was pivotal in the development of a number of civilizations over thousands of years. Along with silk, philosophy, technology and religion travelled along the road, influencing the cultures it connected. Born out of the expansion and connection of ancient trade routes, such as the Persian Empire’s Royal Road, the Silk Road was further established by the Han dynasty, which ruled China from 200 BC-220 AD.
With the rise and fall of empires, dynasties and kingdoms, the Silk Road was sometimes closed or broken, but given its value it usually did not take long for the road to be re-opened in order to maintain lucrative trade and commerce. It was only after the fall of the Mongol Empire in the 15th century that the Silk Road began to fall into serious decline. European powers discovered and utilized sea routes to trade with Asia, making the Silk Road a less desirable way of transporting goods. Today, there are many well-known travel destinations along the ancient Silk Road from Kashgar to Xi’a and, in 2014, a section of the route was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Silk’s desirability stems from the fiber’s low density, which makes it light and comfortable. Soft to the touch, silk also has good tensile strength and elasticity in addition to excellent absorbency. The natural fiber works well with dyes and has a luminosity that adds to its appeal. The fiber is used to make a variety of products like ties, scarves, bed sheets, suits, drapes, pillows and lingerie, and is viewed as a luxurious material. Today, China is still the largest producer of silk, with India coming in a distant second. It is estimated that annual world production totals roughly 70 billion miles of silk filament, a distance equal to over 300 trips to the sun and back.
From robes to linens, silk has been a desirable good for thousands of years. Its trade has shaped our history and, today, the industry employs millions of people across the world. Not bad for something made from steamed worm cocoons.