Silk production is said to have been the most zealously guarded secret in history because it is something the Chinese kept to themselves for almost 2,000 years. Its roots can be traced very far back in history although pinpointing an actual date has not yet been possible.
Prevailing legend says that Goddess of Silk was Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, who was the wife of Yellow Emperor. The mythical Yellow Emperor is said to have ruled China sometime around 3,000 B.C. Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih is given credit for inventing the loom and introducing the rearing of silkworms.
But recent archeological finds suggest the art of silk production, or sericulture as it is more formally known, dates back several thousand years earlier. A small ivory cup carved with a silkworm design, spinning tools, silk thread, and fabric fragments from an archeological site on the Yangzi River are thought to be 6,000 to 7,000 years old.
Although silk is produced from many different varieties of silk moths, many of them wild, the most prized moth used in sericulture is the Bombyx Mori. It is a blind moth that cannot fly. It is a specialized silk producer that is only able to mate and produce the eggs of the next generation. The silkworm this moth produces is highly prized because it produces a filament thread that is finer and smoother than the filament thread of other silk moths. A large reason for that may be due to the diet of the silkworms produced by the Bombyx Mori moth which is mulberry leaves.
In ancient China, sericulture was large part of the daily lives of the female population. The skills and talents of raising and feeding the silkworms, unraveling the filaments into their long threads, spinning those filaments into silk thread, weaving the thread into silk fabric, dying the fabric, and embroidering it, were passed down from generation to generation. It was common for the women of a Chinese household to spend a significant part of each day for half the year to the various activities of sericulture.
Those techniques and secrets passed down through the generations were very closely controlled by the Chinese authorities. Remember when I said earlier in this article that it was zealously guarded secret? I wasnt kidding. At time, anyone who revealed the secrets of sericulture or tried to smuggle either the silkworm eggs or cocoons outside of China were punished by being put to death.
As you might expect, during the earliest centuries of silk production in China, the privilege of wearing was allotted only to the ruler of the country along with his close relatives and his high ranking dignitaries.
Over time that changed. Eventually even the lower classes of Chinese society were wearing silk garments.
Silk was a major part of the Chinese economy. For a period of time, it was used as a method payment. Farmers would pay their taxes in silk. The government would reward its subjects who had provided outstanding services silk. Civil servants received payment for their services in silk also. It also became a form of currency trade between China and foreign countries.
Alas, China was not able to keep the secret of silk production to themselves forever. Chinese immigrants to Korea brought their silk making skills and secrets with them. Others also found ways to get the secrets along with the coveted eggs out of the country because there a high demand for the luxurious silk the Chinese produced. The demand in Roman times for example was so high that some historians say it damaged the Roman economy. That may have been due to the exorbitantly high price of the most luxurious of the silks that cost the equivalent of an entire years wages of a Roman soldier.
Today, although there are many countries who produce world class silk, it is still the Chinese who are the masters at it. China produces approximately half of all the silk made in the world. It is a long process that requires constant attention to detail. It starts with the moth laying it eggs, about 500 of them. The eggs are then hatched under very exacting conditions. The worms that hatch from the eggs are fed chopped mulberry leaves every half hour around the clock. After about a month, the silkworm has increased its weight by about 10,000 times. Once it has fattened itself up enough to have the energy to spin its cocoon, it spends approximately three to four days doing just that spinning a white fluffy cocoon around itself.
After being kept in a warm dry place for several days, the cocoons are ready to be unwound. They are heated (typically steamed or baked) to kill the worms because one of the secrets to silk making is to not let the moth hatch and break the filament of the cocoon. The cocoons are then placed in hot water to loosen the filaments and then unwound onto a spool. Four to eight of the filaments are wound together to make one thread. Thats a lot of time and work to produce one single thread of silk!
The next time you slip on a luxurious silk garment or slide into bed in between a set of opulent silk sheets, consider the rich history of silk and the time consuming and exacting process of creating that beautiful fabric for you to enjoy.