History of Silk and Silkworms

Rich Legends Lend to Silk’s Story

Silk has a natural beauty and its history is surrounded by legends. The Chinese used it first, but other countries did their best to obtain their own silkworms.

The Origin and Importance of Silk

Silk originated in China, where the leaves of a species of mulberry tree provided the first habitats of the silkworm. The worms and trees were wild and prolific.

Silk is made by the silkworm as it builds its cocoon. Although some animal hair can grow to considerable length, silk is the only natural fiber that is hundreds of meters long. Silk is actually extruded, or pushed out, by the worm in one continuous strand as it builds its cocoon.

It is possible to unwind the silkworms’ cocoons and obtain long silk filaments. Silk is the only natural filament fiber that has significant commercial value. The Chinese discovered this process and recognized the potential value of the fiber produced. They guarded the method closely for hundreds of years.

Legend Surrounding Silk

Chinese folklore credits the discover of silk to Princess Si Ling Chi, who reigned about 2,600 B.C.E.. According to legend, after watching a silkworm spin its cocoon, she attempted to unwind the long filaments right there in her garden. After much experimentation she did succeed.

The princess instructed her serving women in the art of weaving rich, beautiful fabrics from the long, silk threads. The Chinese were so grateful for her discovery that the named the princess a goddess and patron deity of weaving.

Silk Secrets Leave China

In spite of the close guarding of the secrets of the controlled production of silk, other countries eventually managed to obtain silkworms. Oftentimes, this was done by somewhat devious means.

Traditional silk is produced from silk worms that must be killed to get their filaments. Ahimsa silk, invented by Kusuma Rajaiah, provides a green, humane alternative

The Japanese purportedly abducted four Chinese women who were experts in sericulture (the controlled production of silk) and forced them to disclose the process. Another tale is that of a princess who carried silkworm eggs and the seeds of the mulberry tree in her head-dress when she left China to marry a prince of another kingdom.

The secrets of silk manufacture were carried to the West when Emperor Justinian sent two monks to the East to discover how to produce and weave the gorgeous fabrics he had seen. The monks returned from a lengthy trip bringing back silkworm eggs and mulberry seed in their hollow bamboo walking sticks. These seeds began a flourishing silk industry developed in Byzantium, also known as Constantinople. From there, the cultivation of the silkworm spread to Western Europe and to the rest of the world where it is now enjoyed everywhere.

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