According to legend, the production of silk began accidentally. The story states that in the 27th century B.C. a Chinese empress dropped a silk cocoon into her cup of tea. As she retrieved the cocoon from the cup, it unfolded into a shimmering thread. The empress, enchanted by the raw beauty of the thread, had a loom created so that the silk could be woven into a fabric.
No one will ever know if this story is truth or myth, but we do know that around that time the Chinese began cultivating silk worms and producingsilk as a fabric.
Initially, silk was a luxury. Only the Emperor and his court were allowed to wear silk clothing. Before long, though, sericulture (the cultivationof silk worms and the production of silk fiber) was spread throughout the entire empire. Silk was woven for clothes, fishing lines, bowstrings, rag paper, and musical instruments. Silk became a form of currency. Farmers paid taxes in silk. Servants were paid in silk. Silk became an important commodity in Chinese trade.
For almost 3000 years the emperors of China, in order to keep a monopoly on sericulture, strove to keep it a secret from other countries. This was mostly successful, although Chinese settlers did bring sericulture to Korea and Japan around 200 BC, and by 300 AD India was producing silk.
An Egyptian mummy dating 1070 BC shows evidence of ancient silk trading. At first, trade was held to neighboring countries, but as time went on, more regions gained access to silk, until it spread all the way to Northern Africa and Western Europe, creating what is known as the Silk Road.
It took until the 6th century AD before the Western World began silk production, when the Roman Emperor Justinian sent two monks to Asia. When the monks returned to Constantinople, they hid silk worm eggs and mulberry leaves in their canes. Thus, the Byzantines now were able to begin silk production.
Byzantium was as determined as China to retain a monopoly over the silk trade. Weavers and looms were not allowed outside of the Imperial Palace and their fabric was worn almost exclusively by political and military leaders. What little silk wasn’t worn by them was sold at exorbitant prices. Silk cultivation then spread throughout Asia Minor and Greece.
In the 7th century, the Arabs conquered the Persians, and with them, the magnificent Persian silks The Arabs then spread silk throughout Africa,Spain, and Sicily as they expanded their empire. Marco Polo’s journeys to China, The Crusaders, and the formation of the Mongol Empire led to even more development of the silk trade between East and West.
By the 12th century, Italy became the silk capital of the Western World, thanks to the Venetian merchants. Presently, most Italian silk is made in Northern Italy near the city of Como, where the white mulberry trees are planted for the silk worms.
In the 15th century, King Francois I started a silk production monopoly in Lyon, France which challenged Italy’s leadership in silk production.In 1685, though, Louis XIV reversed the Edict of Nantes, which had given Protestants (Huguenots) a number of rights in France. Many Huguenots were textile weavers and they fled France establishing silk mills in Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland.
The silkworm, however, did not flourish in these cool climates, nor has it ever done well in the United States. In 1804, Joseph-Marie Jacquard developed a complex loom that weaved complicated floral or figured patterns onto a simpler background. This weave is still very desirable and expensive.
King James I introduced silk growing to the American colonies around 1619, but only the Shakers in Kentucky adopted the process, and it did not become an industry. In the 1800’s a new effort to produce silk in the United States began in New Jersey with European born weavers and in 1810 the first silk mill in the U.S. was established. High tariffs against imported textiles during the American Civil War and the onset of the power loom allowed a period of growth of the silk weaving industry in the United States. The silk itself was produced mostly in China, Japan and to a lesser extent, France and Italy.
The 20th century heralded in a new era in textile working. Now, man began to create fibers. These man-made fibers quickly became cheap to produce and distribute. Production of natural fibers, like silk, began to reduce.
The Second World War had a tremendous effect on the production of silk. Japan’s raw silk supplies were cut off from the Allied countries and the price of silk rose dramatically. Countries began using alternative synthetic fibers for traditional silk products like parachutes and stockings.
In the last 30 years, world silk production has doubled. The allure and appeal of this remarkable luxury fabric continues to grow and be appreciated.