History of Silk

The Story of Silk

silk-wormsThere is nothing like silk. Well, that’s not strictly true; there are several fabrics that are like silk. But, let’s be honest, there is nothing like silk. It has a particular softness, texture, and sheen that is unknown in other fabrics. Not to mention that, since it is fairly difficult to produce in large quantities, silk is somewhat expensive, and has become a bit of a status symbol. To wear something made from pure silk; a tie, a jacket, a shirt, is like wearing a small flag on your person. It says to others that you take pride in your appearance, and are willing to spend the little extra that it takes to look great. It says, refined dignity. It says, class. Other fabrics perform their functions; some are warmer, some are thicker, but when it comes down to luxury and mystique, silk is the king.

But, where, exactly, does silk come from? Is it manufactured from plants; literally growing on trees? Is it mined from the earth? It turns out that the real answer is far more odd and mysterious. Silk comes from worms. Silkworms (see picture above), to be exact; bombyx mori. This is the domesticated version of the wild silkworm. To begin, a crop of silk moths lay their eggs, which are, of course, collected. When these eggs hatch, the resulting larvae are fed exclusively from the leaves of the mulberry tree. And then, they are allowed to molt, and do what moth larvae do; spin cocoons. The difference here is that these cocoons are made out of, you guessed it; silk. They are one continuous-filament fiber that is secreted from the salivary glands of the little worm, and though the cocoons range in size, just one of these silk filaments that is gleaned is usually an average of 1000 yards long. Even so, it will take the efforts of nearly 5500 silkworms to produce 1kg. usable product. These filaments are held together with a sort of gum called sericin, that is then removed through immersion in hot water; leaving a small quantity of raw silk that is spun together with the silk from other cocoons, to form a raw silk yarn. When enough of this yarn is collected, it is dried, and sorted according to quality. Silk. Of course, then there’s just the small task of actually manufacturing the silk into something… This practice of tiny animal husbandry is known as ‘sericulture’, and has been an important industry for thousands of years.

But, when and where did this practice begin? Who figured the process out? The truth is that silk, as a fabric, is so old that its domestic origins have been lost to history. But, there are stories. The Romans, great admirers of silk, had their notions. They were convinced that the Chinese gleaned the fabric from the leaves of trees. Exactly which trees they thought responsible is not know. The Chinese had a more elaborate notion. The famous Chinese philosopher Confucius recounted a tale from the 27th century B.C. of the empress Liezu, and her encounter with a tea cup. As legend has it, one day the young empress was enjoying a spot of tea, when the cocoon of a silkworm fell into her hot drink. What she was doing sitting underneath a bunch of cocoons, who knows, but that’s her story, and she’s sticking to it. Wishing to extract the unwanted visitor from her beverage, the young girl began to unroll the tread of the cocoon; it having been easily loosened by the hot liquid. Having done this, the story then goes, she had the fortuitous idea of weaving the thread into a fabric. She then goes on to teach her court and people the art of sericulture, and eventually becomes the goddess of silk in Chinese mythology. The truth may be stranger still, as archeological evidence places the practice of sericulture as alive and well as far back as 3500 B.C.; 800 years before Liezu, and her tea. Eventually, the Koreans, Japanese, and the Indians acquired the secret of silk manufacture. There are even allusions to it in the Old Testament, indicating that is was, at least, known of in western Asia in biblical times. The history of Asia, and Europe in ancient times is one of almost constant strife and conquest. All of which had the unintended benefit of expanding culture from one area to another. Slowly, the use of silk spread out of eastern Asia, and into the west. Indeed, silk had become a luxury item in far flung countries long before the widespread export from China. It can be found in a 2000 year old Egyptian tomb in the Valley of the Kings; and was so expensive and sheer in ancient Rome, that its very use was considered a symbol of decadence and immorality. But it wasn’t until the crusades that items from the far east really began to make their way in large quantities to culture starved western Europe in the depths of the Dark Ages. From here, the use of silk spread far and wide, eventually, of course, becoming global. Flash forward 1000 years, and the unique allure of silk has scarcely diminished.

So now, you know the history behind your nice silk tie; 5500 years of it. Then, as now, silk remains a fabric that should be revered for its unique and generous qualities. It is still a fabric that garners a response when worn, and can inspire envy in others. Our ancient ancestors may not have known how to send an email, or drive a car, but they were just like you, and knew a good thing when they saw it; silk.

Other Suggested Readings:
The History of Mens Pocket Squares
The History of Ties and Bow Ties

Your Bows-n-Ties.com Team

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