One of the oldest fibers known to man, silk has a history as rich as the fabric itself. Dating back at least 5,500, this beautiful textile originated in ancient China where the silkworm, or bombyx mori, inhabited the land’s mulberry trees.
Legend has it that a Chinese Empress , Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, also known as Leizu, sipped her tea under a mulberry tree when a cocoon fell into her cup. The hot water loosened the strands of the cocoon and instead of being horrified by the worm nestling among it, she became intrigued by the fibrous consistency of the cocoon. A persuasive woman, Leizu then perfected the domestication of the worm by acquiring a grove of mulberry trees from her Emperor husband. Leizu shared her knowledge with her people and when she later invented the loom to spin the fibers, a timeless industry was born. Leizu remains a popular object of worship even in modern China with the title “Silkworm Mother”.
Silk production reached a pinnacle of craftsmanship during the Shang dynasty (which started sometime between the mid 18th – 16th century BC. The fabric was highly valued and only worn by emperors and royalty as an indication of their wealth. Commoners were prohibited to wear silk, though they played an important role in its production as the fabric became an integral part of China’s economy. Entire villages would engage in sericulture (the raising of silkworms for silk production) and they would live off of the profits of their labors for much of the year.
Not surprising, sericulture was woman’s work and different generations each had their own role. Young girls would pick the leaves for the hungry silkworms, grown women would carry bags of eggs between their breasts to keep them warm and spin and weave the silk, the older women would then feed and tend the worms.
With time silk’s value increased exponentially, to the point where it was used as currency, to pay taxes and buy goods along the famed Silk Road to the Near East. Sericulture production techniques and processes were closely controlled secrets by the Chinese for thousands of years. Revealing them or being caught smuggling the silkworm eggs or cocoons outside of China were offenses punishable by death. But, the fortune to be made spreading the secrets of this luxurious fabric was worth the risk. Ultimately the Chinese lost their secrets to India, Japan and Korea, and later to Italy and France. No one knows exactly how the secrets of sericulture got out of China but there are some intriguing stories.
One legend has it that a betrothed princess was the first to smuggle out the necessities of sericulture, like mulberry seeds and silkworms, in her elaborate hair piece as she left the country. Another has it that two monks smuggled silkworm eggs hidden in their bamboo canes into the Byzantine Empire allowing for a new silk monopoly to take hold in Europe.
With its rich history and elegant qualities silk is still loved and valued today. Where else can one find a fabric that looks fabulous with gorgeous shine and color, that is light weight yet performs climate control, feels incredibly soft and sensuous, and is also hypoallergenic and all-natural?! Pretty soon, you too will be saying, “Got Silk?”