Silk in either manufactured or wild form has been used by mankind for thousands of years. This wonderful material is produced by a variety of insects and has been used for everything from the weaving of beautiful fabrics to current biomedical advances that use silk as medicine delivery system in replacement to needles. Silk production changed the course of the world through expanding trade routes, and it has seen the rise and fall of empires throughout the world from ancient Rome to China where its production was first invented. Sericulture is the formal term for silk production, and its history and production are both worthwhile to examine.
Silk in its manufactured form is produced from the moth Bombyx mori. This is the only species in its family, and it has been cultivated for such a long period of time that it can no longer survive in the wild. There are many other species of moths that produce similar kinds of silk, but the B. mori species has been found to produce the best silk for weaving purposes. Discovery of silk is credited to a Chinese prince in 2700 BC who tasked his wife with discovering whether or not the silk from the larvae of the silk moth could be used to make clothing. Not only did this woman determine how to use the silk and raise the moths to produce silk, but she also discovered the method for taking in the silk that the moths produce. This woman was acknowledged in her time and given the honorary name “Goddess of Silk Worms”. Following this discovery, silk production spread quickly throughout China where it became a highly valued commodity for the nation.
This not only made China extremely wealthy, it prompted China to create the world’s longest road in 139 BC, the famous Silk Road. Chinese silk was traded as far away as Rome, and the Chinese protected the knowledge of silk production as a valuable trade secret. However, knowledge eventually spread to Japan and Korea, and a silk moth egg and mulberry seed were even smuggled into India by a Chinese princess for which she was handsomely paid. It is interesting to note that the Silk Road was not only responsible for bringing silk to far flung corners of the world, but it was also responsible for bringing the Black Death to Europe. Although China lost its monopoly on silk production, today it has regained its dominance in silk manufacturing.
Silk production still resembles the initial process discovered by the Goddess of the Silk Worms. The eggs are examined for signs of disease, and they are hatched in a dedicated place. The larvae are hand-fed crushed mulberry leaves, and at the fourth stage of molt, the worms are placed on twigs where they begin to spin a silk cocoon. What makes silk such a great material for weaving is the worm’s ability to spin a single, continuous thread of silk. They produce this from their mouths, and once the cocoons are spun, the worms are killed by steam or fumigation. After the larvae are removed, the cocoon is softened in hot water, and the filaments are drawn from the water bowls and formed into yarn.
China and India are currently the world’s leading producers of silk with 50% of the total silk production in the world. Silk production in China has doubled in the last 30 years in spite of many synthetic alternatives available on the market. Silk has a long and storied past which is certainly a part of beauty and appeal.
Carrie Olson writes for several craft and design blogs where she recommends using silk fabric for luxurious designs.