The Fascinating History of Silk

Posted by Ginette Thibault on

Silk thread being spun from cocoons
Silk thread being spun from cocoons

You may know that silk is a supple fabric with a characteristic soft luster is manufactured from fiber created biologically by moth larvae. 1,000 silkworms produce less than one half pound of raw silk. What you may not know is that sericulture, the controlled production of silk, was a secret known only to the Chinese for thousands of years. What’s more, even in China, the fabric was for many years manufactured exclusively for use by the Chinese emperor and forbidden to the people.

Chinese mythology accredits the development of raising silkworms to produce the raw material and the weaving method for the fabric to Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, the wife of an Emperor said to have lived around 3000 BC. Archaeological evidence, however, suggests that silk may have been in use there more than 6,000 years ago.

While its actual origin may be lost to us today, we know that silk production methods were carefully guarded by the Chinese. They perfected the process so well that silk was employed industrially as well as in apparel and decoration very early in the country’s history. Because of its light weight and strength, it was used for such purposes as bowstrings, fishing line and even paper.

Prized like gold

In time, silk became so prized that it was used as a commodity like gold, with a calculable value, and was employed as currency within China and later in trade with other nations. Silk was a major factor in the economy of the country, and still the secret was kept safe until 200 BC, when immigrants reportedly started Korean silk production.

Over the next several hundred years, the heart of silk production, that is silkworm eggs, were smuggled out of China and into other countries by ingeniously covert means such as in the hairpiece of a bride-to-be and in the staves of monks. Those eggs were carefully hatched to start the silk industry in those countries. Eventually the production and weaving processes were perfected and competitive silk markets arose, but this occurred over a very long period in world history, since each country that gained the secrets attempted to keep them within their own borders, to protect this precious commodity.

The spread of silk production

During the centuries that silk production secrets slowly leaked out of its borders and to the world, China’s silk retained its trade value because of its superior quality. In time, Persia, Italy and other countries eventually developed their own trademarks and began producing fine fabric.

Silk Road - Old Trade Routes
Silk Road – Old Trade Routes

Even today, however, with mass silk production occurring globally, Chinese silk is still very much in demand and China has stepped up its production over the last few decades and is currently the world’s leading silk producer.

On a side note, there is some evidence that silk was traded long before China made it openly available. Silk has been found on Egyptian remains dated back to 1070 BC, roughly eight hundred years before the Silk Road opened.

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