Silk is without a doubt one of China’s major contributions to the world and it has been an important part of the Chinese economy for thousands of years.  How to produce this fabric, which is smooth and luxurious and able to retain warmth in the winter and yet be cool in the summer, was once the world’s most carefully guarded secret, only known to the Chinese for several millennium.  The world famous Silk Road that opened trade from Asia to Europe was built, at the cost of countless lives, to export this highly praised fabric to Indian, Middle Eastern and European buyers.  This famed route later served as a passage to exchange other goods and inventions and helped to spread cultural influences in both directions.


Silk production, called sericulture, dates back as far as 30 centuries before Christ, when the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, came into power.  There are many legends about how people discovered silk, including one about a girl and her father who had a magic horse.  The father went out on business and did not return; the worried daughter promised the horse her hand in marriage if the horse could find her father. When the father returned, riding on the horse, he was shocked by his daughter’s promise and not only forbade the wedding, but killed the magic horse.  The horse’s skin rose up and took the girl into the sky; they landed eventually on a tree, where she became a silkworm and produced long thing strands of silk that represented her sadness.  A more believable account of silk’s origin has ancient Chinese women picking some strange white fruit that was too hard to eat.  The women boiled the fruit to see if that would render it edible, and when it did not, they lost patience and beat the fruit with sticks.  In this way, cocoons, silkworms and silk were discovered – at least according to this attempt to explain the origin of silk.

More widespread is the belief that the Yellow Emperor’s wife, Lady Shi-Ling-Shih, introduced silkworm rearing and invented the loom.  She is given the title Goddess of Silk.  From her time period, about 3000 BC, ribbons, threads and woven fragments have been excavated by archeologists in the Zhejiang province, so it is irrefutable that silk was being produced that long ago in China.  In fact, a more recent archeological find – a small ivory cup bearing the design of a silkworm -  is thought to be between 6000 and 7000 years old, and other artifacts including spinning tools, silk thread and pieces of silk fabric which were found along the lower Yangtze River show silk production to be much, much more ancient than previously thought.

The world’s most carefully guarded secret

You are about to become privy to the secret of silk production that was kept on penalty of death for thousands of years.  People throughout China knew the secret, but if they revealed anything to an outsider or smuggled eggs or cocoons out of the country they would have paid for their discretion with their lives.

One moth alone is able to produce silk threads that are smoother, finer and rounder than any of the other many kinds of silk worms, and that is the Bombyx mori moth.  This moth is thought to have evolved from the wild Bombyx mandarina Moore, a silk moth unique to China which feeds upon the white mulberry tree.  Its descendent, the Bombyx mori, evolved from thousands of years of experimentation in Chinese sericulture to become a specialized silk producer – it has lost its ability to fly and to see and is capable only of mating and producing eggs.

bombyx mori moth

Bombyx mandarina moth

To produce silk, cultivators have to prevent the moth from hatching and they have to perfect the diet given the silkworms.  The Chinese developed secret ways to achieve these ends, and the production process demands careful and constant attention.  In fact, in every silk-producing province in China, the daughters, mothers and grandmothers of every family spent much of their days caring for the silkworms and producing silk threads for six months out of the year.

Silkworm eggs must be kept at 65 degrees F, increasing gradually to 77 degrees when they are ready to hatch.  The baby worms are fed fresh, hand-picked and chopped mulberry leaves every half hour, day and night, until they fatten up nicely.

Thousands of feeding worms are kept on trays, stacked one on top of the other.  A room full of these feeding worms sounds like rain falling on a roof.  Throughout this growth stage, the temperature must be maintained at a constant and the worms must be protected from strong odors such as fish and meat and even sweat.  After an average of 25 to 28 days, the worms are big enough to spin cocoons. At this time, the worms produce a jelly-like substance in their silk glands, which hardens when it comes in contact with air.  For three or four days, the worms spin cocoons around themselves, until they look like puffy white balls.

The cocoons are kept in a warm, dry place for eight or nine days, at which time they need to be unraveled.  Now in pupa form, the worms are killed by steaming or baking the cocoons.  Then the cocoons are dipped into hot water to loosen the filaments, which are wound onto a spool.  The cocoons are woven extremely tightly; unraveling a single one of them produces a silk filament that is between 600 to 1,000 meters long!

Five to eight of these incredibly thin filaments are twisted together to make one thread.  Two workers are needed for this stage of production, during which the strands are known as ‘raw silk’.  At this point, the threads can be dyed and woven into cloth or used for embroidery.

In Chinese households, reeling silk and spinning it into threads was common women’s work, while weaving the threads and doing embroidery work was done both inside the home and at outside workshops.  

For an idea of how much work is involved, 111 cocoons are needed for a man’s tie, 630 for a woman’s blouse.

The spread of silk in China

When silk was first discovered it was used exclusively for the ruler and his close circle of family members and dignitaries.  The emperor is believed to have worn white silk robes within the palace walls, while outside, he, his wife and their heir wore yellow to represent the color of the earth.

With time, however, silk came into more general use, not only for clothing and decorations but also for industrial use.  It was used for bowstrings, fishing-lines, even for luxury paper.   In the Han Dynasty, silk became an absolute value in itself; people began using it as a currency.  Silk was used to pay taxes, to pay civil servants and reward people for their service. Prices were calculated by ‘lengths of silk’ and this practice continued on through the Tang Dynasty, resulting in a major increase in silk production.

The secret is told to outsiders

When waves of Chinese immigrants reached Korea around 200 BC, the secrets of silk production went with them and soon Korea was also producing silk.  Secrets of sericulture were also reaching the west through various channels; it had reached India shortly after 300 AD. 

Chinese history tells of a Chinese princess in 440 AD who smuggled out silkworm eggs in her hairpiece after her marriage to a prince of Khotan (today’s Hetian).  The prince, however, kept the secret for himself and did not spread sericulture to westerners for fear of killing a good market.  In 550 AD, two monks appeared at the Byzantine emperor’s court with silkworm eggs hidden in their hollow bamboo staves. The monks supervised the eggs as they hatched into worms, then watched the worms spun cocoons . . . the Byzantine silk business was born.  The church and state kept the secret of silk production to themselves and created a silk industry which rivaled ordinary-grade Chinese silk, but for the best quality silk, Middle Eastern and European buyers still looked toward China.

In the 6th century, Persians mastered silk waving and developed their own rich patterns and techniques. Only seven centuries later, at the time of the Second Crusades, did Italy begin to produce silk, when it brought in 2000 skilled silk weavers from Constantinople in the 13th century.  Eventually, many locations throughout Europe were producing silk, but the cloth remains even today something of a luxury; the feel of silk is incomparable.

Silk trade and the Silk Road

The discovery near Thebes of an Egyptian female mummy wearing silk dated 1070 BC proves that silk was being traded way before the official opening of the famous Silk Road in the second century BC.

Originally, the Chinese traded silk within the Chinese empire; caravans from the interior would carry silk to the western edges of the region, but these caravans often came under attack by small Central Asian tribes.  In order to protect these caravans, the Han Dynasty extended its military defenses further into Central Asia from 135 to 90 BC.  Chan Ch'ien, the first known Chinese traveler to make contact with the Central Asian tribes, later came up with the idea to expand the silk trade to include these Central Asian tribes and therefore forge alliances with these nomads. This was the beginning of the Silk Road.
The route grew with the rise of the Roman Empire because the Chinese initially gave silk to the Roman-Asian governments as gifts.
The 7,000 mile route spanned China, Central Asia, Northern India, and the Parthian and Roman Empires. It connected the Yellow River Valley to the Mediterranean Sea and passed through places such as Chinese cities Kansu and Sinkiang as well as the present-day countries of Iran, Iraq and Syria.
 Northwestern Indians who lived near the Ganges River became important as middlemen in the China-Mediterranean silk trade; as early as the third century AD, they understood that silk was a lucrative product. The trading relationship between the Chinese and the Indians grew stronger with increased Han expansion into Central Asia. The Chinese would trade silk with the Indians for precious stones and metals such as jade, gold, and silver, and the Indians would then trade the silk with the Roman Empire. Silk proved to be an expensive import for the Roman Empire since its trade across Indian and Central Asia was heavily controlled by the Parthian Empire.
The Chinese silk trade increased the number of foreign merchants in China in the Han Dynasty, exposing both the Chinese and visitors to their country to different cultures and religions. In fact, Buddhism spread from India to China because of trade along the Silk Route, much as Islam spread along trans-Siberian routes in medieval West Africa.
An amazing discovery of Tang silks was made in 1907 by Aurel Stein, who unearthed treasures sealed by Buddhist monks around 1015 within the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas near Dunhang, a station along the Silk Road in northwest Gansu.  The monks probably feared an invasion by the Tanguts, a Tibetan people, and therefore sealed the goods up for safekeeping.  The hidden goods included more than 10,000 manuscripts and silk paintings, banners and textiles.

The Greeks and Romans began talking about ‘Seres’ the Kingdom of Silk from about the fourth century BC.  Some historians believe that the first Romans to see silk were the legions of Marcus Licinius Crassus, Governor of Syria.  It is said that the soldiers, fighting in the 53 BC battle of Carrhae, were so startled by the colourful silken banners carried by the Parthian troops that they reportedly ran away.

Soon, Rome’s nobility dressed in Chinese silk, and the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (218 – 222 AD) reportedly wore nothing but silk.  By 380 AD, however, Marcellinus Ammianus reported that the use of silk had spread to “all classes without distinction, even to the lowest”.  The price of silk, though, still put it out of everyone’s reach.  The best quality silk could cost the equivalent of a Roman soldier’s annual pay, and according to some sources, the Romans demand for imported silks was so great that it damaged the Roman economy.  At one time, Roman men were prohibited from wearing silk, according to the Roman sumptuary law.

Even ‘barbarians’ appreciated silks and the material is said to have civilized them to some degree.  In 408 AD, the Goth Alaric raided Rome.  His demand in return for sparring the city was 5000 pounds of gold, 3000 pounds of pepper, 30,000 pounds of silver and 4000 tunics of silk.

By 760 AD, during the Tang Dynasty, trade along the Silk Road had declined. It greatly revived under the Sung Dynasty in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when China became largely dependent on its silk trade. In addition, trade recovered for a period of time from 1276-1368 under Mongol control in the Yuan Dynasty. The Chinese traded silk for medicines, perfumes, and slaves in addition to precious stones. As overland trade became increasingly dangerous, and overseas trade became more popular, trade along the Silk Road again declined. While the Chinese maintained a silk-fur trade with the Russians north of the original Silk Route, by the end of the fourteenth century, trade and travel along the road had decreased.

Silk production today

After losing its lead in the market, China regained its position as the world’s leading silk producer after it increased production in the late 1970s.  Worldwide, silk production has doubled in the last 30 years, despite man-made fibers replacing silk for some uses. China and Japan together produce over half of the world’s silk.

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