History of: Silk

Date: 02/14

The month of love deserves a look into the history of a fabric known for its sensuality. Silk has long been known as a luxurious material and remains so today. Such a rich and intricate past deserves to be told.

Silk, probably first used as early as 4000 BC, begins its full story sometime in the 27th century BC. It was at this time that the Chinese legend of the Goddess of Silk came to be. The wife of the Yellow Emperor, who ruled around 3000 BC, had the idea to weave silk after a cocoon fell into her tea and unwound itself. At her husband's urging, she began the art of raising silkworms, known as sericulture.

Silk began its impressive journey long ago, but not just in China. Archeologists have found silk in the Egyptian tomb of a female mummy located near the Valley of Kings that dates to 1070 BC. Similarly, a room at the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, near Dunhuang, Western China- was discovered to have been sealed with more than ten thousand manuscripts and silk banners, paintings, and textiles inside, all of which are from around 1015 BC. The high demand for this luxury textile in places west of China is how the trade route known as the 'Silk Road' came to be. Beginning in the 2nd century CE, it offered two routes to the Chinese, who then wished to sell and trade their precious silk goods. This was a long time coming though as silk had previously been restricted by an imperial decree in China, to be made and used only by the Emperor and wealthy families. Anyone who dared to break this decree faced the death penalty. It wasn't until 300 CE that the first silkworms and cocoons were smuggled out of China and into Japan, along with four Chinese girls who were forced into teaching the art of sericulture. This ended the nearly millennium long monopoly that China had on the silk trade.

By this time the importance of silk had grown so that it had become one of the principal radicals of Chinese script (糸). It was so valuable that it was more than a textile, it was a currency used to pay officials and compensate citizens. As its importance and popularity grew so did its versatility. Silk eventually found its way into the paper-making process, producing the world's first luxury paper. Rag paper, while more expensive, was also much more practical than the bamboo slips that were previously used. While the technology to create this paper is thought to have been available since the 2nd century BC, looms and wheels to spin or weave silk did not become readily evident until the 12th century CE. It was in France that the technological revolution likely started. The introduction of new fabrics, like hemp and cotton, also brought new machines to process them. These machines were quickly adapted to mill silk. From the long labors of creating silk goods by hand to the rapidly improving methods of weaving silk with machines, this advancement took only a few hundred years.

Soon nearly every culture from China to England had its own silk industry. Some flourished, such as Africa, Spain and especially Italy, while many were unable to gain a solid foothold. Italy saw the most improvements with machinery and as such its silk industry grew to be quite renowned. The Black Death that plagued Europe caused many lesser quality goods to become more prevalent and hence caused the silk industry to lose some of its popularity. Even the Industrial Revolution was slow to revive the silk industry. It wasn't until the Jacquard loom became available that the process of making silk goods was forever changed. Unfortunately not long after the Jacquard loom made its appearance did the first silkworm diseases start to spread. Not only did the diseases attack the silkworms, it also attacked their habitat- the mulberry trees. The epidemic nearly destroyed the silk industry as the preference for other textiles also further impacted it. The European silk industry never fully recovered, as the advances in textiles made more affordable alternatives. Slowly, Japan and China would soon become the leaders in the silk industry once again and are still today.