• Neil Padilla

The Story of Silk

Have you ever worn silk?  Do you remember the feel of it? Can you still remember how it glided over your skin almost like the wind itself in its delicateness?  From a humble caterpillar, we can create the strongest fiber known to man - something even stronger than steel. There is simply something otherworldly about this textile that it has driven entire economies and empires to prosperity and ruin.  This is the story of silk. 




A Serendipitous Cup


An empress, perhaps done with her duties as monarch or she simply needed to rest, sat down underneath a mulberry tree. It may have been her usual spot or maybe, it was her first time sitting under this particular tree. We would never know what brought her to the  shade of the mulberry; things like these tend to get forgotten when speaking about legends. In any case, she sat down and had a cup of tea. 


While having her tea – white tea according to some sources, green as mentioned by others - a cocoon fell into her cup. It may have stayed there for a long time, maybe the empress even saw it fall in. Again, the minutia is lost to time. 


What we know is that she saw the cocoon in her cup and grew curious as the cocoon now showed the end of a thread. She pulled then pulled some more revealing that the entire cocoon was made of one single shiny thread.


She looked up and saw many cocoons suspended in the branches of the tree she was under. Legend gives credit for developing silk to the empress, Leizu (Hsi-Ling-Shih, Lei-Tzu). It was then that silk was discovered or so the story goes.





Beyond the Legend


The fabric was first developed in ancient China. There is evidence of the use of silk protein from two tombs that date as far back as 8,500 years ago. These are neolithic sites at Jiahu in Henan. We also have surviving examples of silk fabric that dates to about 3630 BC. It was used wrapper for the body of a child at a Yangshao culture site in Qingtaicun near Xingyang.


Silk has been around before Chinese recorded history. Emperors were the primary users of this fabric for their own use and as gifts to others. In 2007, archaeologists discovered intricately woven and dyed textiles in a tomb in Jiangxi province. The samples are dated to be from the Eastern Zhou dynasty that existed roughly around 2,500 years ago.


Historians suspected a long history of a formative textile industry in this ancient point in Chinese history. This find, showing the use of complicated techniques of weaving and dyeing, provides direct evidence for silks dating before the Mawangdui-discovery and other silks dating to the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD).


Silk gradually spread through Chinese culture on both the geographical and social scale. It also spread to many regions in Asia. Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in many areas accessible to Chinese merchants. Silk was in great demand and became a staple of pre-industrial international trade. Silk is described in a chapter of the Fan Shengzhi Shu from the Western Han (202 BC – 9 AD). 


Silk was found in the hair of an Egyptian mummy that goes as far back as 1070 BC. Ancient silk trade is recorded to have reached as far away as the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, even Europe. 


This commodity was so valued and the trade that grew around it became so so extensive that a major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia came to be known as the Silk Road. The caravans that made use of this series of trade routes in order to trade silk with other merchants tended to be large, including any number from 100 to 500 people along with their camels and other beasts of burden.




Going Wild


These days we even have synthetic silk, however, the best-known silk is still obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm, scientifically known as Bombyx mori. These are reared in captivity in what is called sericulture (more on this later). The shimmering appearance of silk produced by natural means is due to the triangular prism-like structures of the silk fibers. This allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles.



There are several kinds of wild silk, however. These are produced by caterpillars other than the B. mori. These were created in China, South Asia, and Europe since ancient times. Spider webs have been known to be used to dress wounds in Greece and Rome. The Aztecs were known to paste together caterpillar nests to make fabric. 


Of course, the creation of wild silk in ancient times did not come close to how the silk industry was handled by the Chinese during those times. 




Keeping it Secret


Silk itself was the primary commodity on the silk road and was in high regard throughout the old world. Sericulture, also called silk farming, is the cultivation of silkworms to produce silk. There are different commercial species of silkworms but Bombyx mori is the most widely used and intensively studied silkworm.



As China had the monopoly on this textile, the Emperors of China strove to keep knowledge of sericulture secret to maintain this situation. It reached Korea with technological aid from China around 200 BC, the ancient Kingdom of Khotan by AD 50, and India by AD 140.


In the ancient era, silk from China was the most lucrative and sought-after luxury item traded across the Eurasian continent. It even became such a valued item in ancient and many civilizations, such as the ancient Persians, benefited economically from trade. 


Despite the popularity of silk, the secret of silk-making only reached Europe around AD 550, via the Byzantine Empire. Legend has it that monks working for the emperor Justinian I smuggled silkworm eggs to Constantinople in hollow canes from China. All top-quality looms and weavers were located inside the Great Palace complex in Constantinople, and the cloth produced was used in imperial robes or in diplomacy, as gifts to foreign dignitaries. The remainder was sold at very high prices.




Corporate Espionage in the Ancient Times


Around 550 AD, Europeans broke the monopoly on silk via the Byzantine Empire. 


A century before this, the Scythians and the Achaemenids were making a huge fortune on being the middlemen of trade on the Silk Road. The Achaemenids used their Royal Road as an extension of the Silk Road towards Europe. When Alexander the Great swooped in and founded Alexandria Eschate, it opened up trade even more.



You can say that the exorbitant prices ancient Rome was paying in order to get more silk contributed to the downfall of their western empire. The Eastern Roman Empire had the same taste for silk as their fallen cousins. They had been trading with the Sassanid Empire at this time and the Silk Road was not as secure as it once was. There was one problem: The Byzantine Empire was mostly at war with the Sassanids thus putting a huge monkey wrench in the silk trade. 


Justinian the first wanted to try other routes in order to curtail having to trade with the Sassanids for this precious resource. The northern routes they took too long and caused entire caravans to be lost. Maritime routes were either teeming with pirates or are blockaded by their rival empire.


Legend has it that two Nestorian monks approached Emperor Justinian I in the 550s. They wanted to help the issue with silk supply for a price. Much like the legend of how silk was discovered, the details are a bit muddled. There are a few details however that keep coming up. 


Firstly, that these two monks spend a number of years to fulfill this mission. Second, that they learned the process of silk making in China. Thirdly, that they were able to get mulberry trees for their return trip to Constantinople and lastly, and this is the most important part, they managed to smuggle silkworm eggs or larvae to Constantinople in hollow canes from China. 


Despite all the possible conflicts, Justin and his successor were able to build silk industry centers in Berytus, Prusa, and Morea. The Chinese no longer had a monopoly on silk making and the Sassanid Empire no longer enjoyed the advantage of being the primary silk middle man. 




As gold is to metal…


With all this effort for a textile, you have to wonder why people think that silk is to textiles as gold is to metal. What is it really like to wear silk and what makes it such a valuable commodity? 


  1. Silk has a good hygroscopicity and releases moisture easily.  Hygroscopicity is the capacity of a product to react to the moisture content of the air by absorbing or releasing water vapor.  Silk can help the skin retain moisture keeping our skin from being too dry.

  2. Silk can repel ultraviolet rays. Tryptophan and tyrosine, proteins in silk can absorb ultraviolet rays

  3. Wearing silk is an experience. Real silk has good biocompatibility with the human body. The surface is very smooth, giving it the lowest friction and stimulation coefficient with the human body amongst all kinds of fiber.





The story begins


This is the story of silk but we are only just beginning. 


Silk leant its name to the Silk Road from the lucrative trade in silk during the Han dynasty in China (207 BCE–220 CE). This expanded the Central Asian section of the trade routes around 114 BCE through the missions and explorations of the Chinese imperial envoy Zhang Qian, as well as several military conquests.



This precious textile was the spark that created a trade route that shaped human civilization as we know it today. 


Let CentrAsia Tours be your doorway to history as we continue to explore The Silk Road and the whole of Central Asia.

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