History of Silk
Silk, one of the oldest fibers known to man, originated in China. The history of silk is both enchanting and illustrious. The following sections cover the various facets of silk history.
According to well-established Chinese legend, Empress Hsi Ling Shi, wife of Emperor Huang Ti (also called the Yellow Emperor), was the first person to accidentally discover silk as weavable fiber.
One day, when the empress was sipping tea under a mulberry tree, a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. The empress became so enamored with the shimmering threads, she discovered their source, the Bombyx Mori silkworm found in the white mulberry. The empress soon developed sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom. Thus began the history of silk.
Whether or not the legend is accurate, it is certain that the earliest surviving references to silk history and production place it in China; and that for nearly 3 millennia, the Chinese had a global monopoly on silk production.
The Silk Road
Though first reserved for Chinese royalty, silk spread gradually through the Chinese culture both geographically and socially. From there, silken garments began to reach regions throughout Asia. Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants, because of its texture and luster.
Demand for this exotic fabric eventually created the lucrative trade route now known as the Silk Road, taking silk westward and bringing gold, silver and wools to the East. It was named the Silk Road after its most valuable commodity – silk was considered even more precious than gold! Clearly, a basic understanding of silk history would not be complete without understanding the crucial role played by the Silk Road in its global trade and introduction to the world outside of China.
The Silk Road was some 4,000 miles long stretching from Eastern China to the Mediterranean Sea. A caravan tract, the Silk Road followed the Great Wall of China to the north-west, bypassing the Takla Makan desert, climbing the Pamir mountain range, crossing modern-day Afghanistan and going on to the Levant, with a major trading market in Damascus. From there, the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Few people traveled the entire route; goods were handled mostly by a series of middlemen.
A Well-kept Secret
The Chinese realized the value of the beautiful material they were producing and kept its secret safe from the rest of the world for more than 30 centuries. Travelers were searched thoroughly at border crossings and anyone caught trying to smuggle eggs, cocoons or silkworms out of the country were summarily executed. Thus, under penalty of death, the mystery of sericulture remained a well-kept secret for almost three thousand years.
With the mulberry silk moth native to China, the Chinese had a monopoly on the world's silk production until about BCE 200 when Korea saw the emergence of its own silk industry thanks to a handful of Chinese immigrants who had settled there. By about CE 300, sericulture had spread into India, Japan, and Persia – thus making silk a part of the history of these cultures.
The Roman Empire knew of and traded in silk. Despite its popularity, however, the secret of silk-making was only to reach Europe around CE 550, via the Byzantine Empire. According to a legend well enshrined in silk history, monks working for the emperor Justinian smuggled silkworm eggs to Constantinople in hollow bamboo walking canes. The Byzantines were as secretive as the Chinese, and for many centuries the weaving and trading of silk fabric was a strict imperial monopoly.
In the seventh century, the Arabs conquered Persia, capturing their magnificent silks in the process. Sericulture and silk weaving thus spread through Africa, Sicily, and Spain as the Arabs swept through these lands. Andalusia was Europe's main silk-producing center in the tenth century.
By the 13th century, however, Italy had gained dominance and entered the hall of fame in silk history. Venetian merchants traded extensively in silk and encouraged silk growers to settle in Italy. By the 13th century, Italian silk was a significant source of trade. Even now, silk processed (finished, dyed, printed) in the province of Como enjoys an esteemed reputation.
Italian silk was so popular in Europe that Francis I of France invited Italian silkmakers to France to create a French silk industry, especially in Lyon. By the 17th century France was challenging Italy's leadership, and the silk looms established in the Lyons area at that time are still famous today for the unique beauty of their weaving.
In Medieval Europe, silk was used only by the nobility.
The nineteenth century and industrialization saw the downfall of the European silk industry. Cheaper Japanese silk, especially driven by the opening of the Suez Canal, was one of the many factors driving the trend. Additionally, advent of manmade fiber, such as nylon, started to dominate traditionally silk products such as stockings and parachutes. The two world wars, which interrupted the supply of raw material from Japan, also stifled the European silk industry.
After the Second World War, Japan's silk production was restored, with improved production and quality of raw silk. Japan was to remain the world's biggest producer of raw silk, and practically the only major exporter of raw silk, until the 1970s.
China gradually re-captured her position as the world's biggest producer and exporter of raw silk and silk yarn – proving that the history of silk follows its own boomerang principles. Today, around 125,000 metric tons of silk is produced in the world. Almost two thirds of that production takes place in China.
The other major producers are India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and Brazil. United States is by far the largest importer of silk products today.