History of silk

The history of silk is shrouded in the mists of time and commercial secrecy. Silk production started in China around 5000 years ago where the bombyx mori silkmoth and the white mulberry, its food, coexisted. The most common story about the start of silk production is that told by Confucius, of the Empress Xi Ling-Shi, the Lady of the Silkworms, who is reputed to have accidentally dropped a silk cocoon into a cup of hot tea in around 2640BC. When she retrieved it, out came a silken thread (history doesn’t say what the tea tasted like!). She was so enamoured with its delicate beauty that she encouraged the development of silk as a textile. So, the chinese were wearing silk garments while Europe was still in the stone age!

The spread of silk and the mulberry tree is a fascinating story. Chinese silks were being sold in Japan and Asia, where the Romans first discovered this lustrous fabric, in the 3rd Century BC. Julius Caesar liked it so much that he restricted the wearing of silk to himself and his favoured officials. China maintained a monopoly for around 2500 years until the secrets of sericulture were reportedly smuggled out by Persian monks who also carried silkworm eggs in their hollow pilgrim canes. From there it travelled to Persia, Japan, Korea, India, Greece and much later, around the 10th century, to Spain and, in the 12th century, to Italy. By the 15th century the French, in the form of René, Duke of Provence, had imported from Italy the techniques and know-how to produce silk. Lyons became an important centre for silk production and a succession of French Kings encouraged the industry.

Eventually silk production spread around Europe to Germany and England. James I was the first monarch to try and establish a silk industry in England. He had a good start in that the mulberry tree was already well established in England. James had seen how silk had helped create the prosperity of Florence, Venice and Lyons and invited French weavers to come to England. Production was centred mainly around London at Spitalfields, Bethnel Green, Whitechapel and Stepney.

Latterly, China produces around 50% of the raw silk world production of about 56,000 tonnes (1985) with Japan, India, Russia, Korea and Brazil also being major producers.

For more information have a look at ‘Silk, a natural material’ in ‘A Complete Guide to Silk Painting’ by Susanne Hahn – Search Press – 1991. You could also visit the Silk Association of Great Britain’s web site at http://www.silk.org.uk/history.htm.