Silk is a thin, but strong fiber that silkworms produce when they are making their cocoons. It can be woven into a very soft and smooth fabric. Silk fabric was invented in Ancient China and played an important role in their culture and economy for thousands of years.
China is the world’s largest silk producer. The vast majority of Chinese silk originates from the mulberry silkworms (Bombyx mori). During the larval stage of its life-cycle, the insects feeds on the leaves of mulberry trees. Non-mulberry silkworms cocoon production in China primarily focuses on wild silk from the Chinese Tussah moth (Antheraea spp.). This moth typically feeds on trees (e.g. oaks) and its larvae spin coarser, flatter, yellower filament than the mulberry silk moths.
Introduction of Chinese Silk
History of Chinese Silk
The history of sericulture in China is a long one. The oldest silk found in China has been dated to about 3630 BC, which means that it is from the Chinese Neolithic period. This silk was found in Henan Province, a region widely regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization.
Another example of very old silk in China is a group of silk threads, a braided silk belt and a woven silk cloth fragment dated to circa 2570 BC. These items were excavated from the Liangzhu culture site at Qianshanyang, in the Zhejiang Province. The Liangzhu was the last Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta.
The oldest known written reference to silk is on a bronze fragment found at the Shang Dynast site at Anyang. The Shang Dynasty existed from circa 1600 to circa 1050 BC.
A small ivory cup adorned with a carved silkworm design found in China is thought to be between 6000 and 7000 years old.
Legend of Silk
According to Chinese myth, sericulture and the weaving of silk cloth was invented by Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, the wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor who is said to have ruled China in about 3,000 BC. Hsi-Ling-Shi is credited with both introducing sericulture and inventing the loom upon which silk is woven. In Chinese texts, she is sometimes referred to as The Goddess of Silk.
Legend has it that the process for making silk cloth was first invented by the wife of the Yellow Emperor, Leizu, around the year 2696 BC. The idea for silk first came to Leizu while she was having tea in the imperial gardens. A cocoon fell into her tea and unraveled. She noticed that the cocoon was actually made from a long thread that was both strong and soft. Leizu then discovered how to combine the silk fibers into a thread. She also invented the silk loom that combined the threads into a soft cloth. Soon Leizu had a forest of mulberry trees for the silkworms to feed on and taught the rest of China how to make silk.
Some remarkable finds of very old silk has been made in places located along the Silk Road. One of these amazing finds were made by the Hungarian-born British archeologist Aurel Stein in 1907 as he was exploring The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang. Dunhuang, located in northwestern Gansu, was once one of the pit stops along the Silk Road.
What Stein found in one of the cave rooms was more than 10,000 manuscripts and silk paintings, silk banners, and textiles. It is believed that these treasures were hidden in this room around the year 1015, by Buddhist monks fearing an Tangut invasion. They hid the items in the cave room and sealed it up, and did such a good job that the items remained hidden for nearly 900 years.
The Silk Road
The Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in silk carried out along its lenght. It was this trade that made it possible for people in places located far away from any silk cultivation and silk weaving to wear and use silk. For instance, silk has been found with an ancient Egyptian mummy in the village of Deir el Medina; a mummy dated to 1070 BC.
The ancient Chinese bred special moths to produce the quality silk they wanted. Here are the steps in the process for making silk:
- A moth lays 500 or so eggs and then dies
- Baby worms hatch from the eggs are fed mulberry leaves for one month until they are fat
- The worms spin cocoons
- The cocoons are steamed to kill the growing moth inside
- The cocoons are rinsed in hot water to loosen the threads
- Women would unwind the cocoons and then combine six or so fibers into silk threads
- The threads are woven into cloth
- The cloth is then pounded to make it softer
Silk in Chinese Culture
Silk cloth was extremely valuable in ancient China. Wearing silk was an important status symbol. At first, only members of the royal family were allowed to wear silk. Later, silk clothing was restricted to only the noble class. Merchants and peasants were not allowed to wear silk. Silk was even used as money during some Ancient Chinese dynasties.
Keeping Silk a Secret
Silk became a prized export for the Chinese. Nobles and kings of foreign lands desired silk and would pay high prices for the cloth. The emperors of China wanted to keep the process for making silk a secret. Anyone caught telling the secret or taking silkworms out of China was put to death.
The Chinese managed to keep silk a secret for over 1000 years. However, in 550 AD the secret of silk became known to other countries when two monks from the Byzantine Empire managed to smuggle some silkworm eggs out of the country. They hid the eggs inside of their bamboo walking sticks.
Interesting Facts about Silk
- It wasn’t until the Qing dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1911, that peasants were allowed to wear silk clothing.
- Silk was used for other purposes than clothing such a paper, fishing lines, bowstrings, and canvas for painting.
- Around the thirteenth century, Italy became one of the major producers of silk. Some of the finest silk in the world is made in Italy today.
- Silk clothing was often embroidered with designs. The most popular designs were of flowers and birds.
- Silk was such an important product from China that the trade route from Europe to China became known as the Silk Road.
Function of Silk
Being a natural fiber, silk has irreplaceable uniqueness and great vitality. The silk garment has certain health care function to the human body:
First, it brings a pleasant sensation. Composed of Bazelon, the real silk has good biocompatibility. The smooth surface makes the smallest friction coefficient of all types of riders.
Second, it has good permeability and hygroscopicity. It contains 18 sorts of amino acids. It is regarded as the “Queen of Fiber” due to its good permeability and light-absorbing ability.
Third, it has excellent qualities of acoustic absorption, dust absorption and strongly heat-resistant. Fourth, it has the function of anti-ultraviolet radiation. The fibroin in it can well absorb ultraviolet radiation. But after absorbing the ultraviolet radiation, the chemical changes will make it yellowing from daylighting.
The four great centers of Chinese silk
- Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province
The most famous silk production area in China, Hangzhou has exported silk products via ancient Silk Road ever since Han Dynasty, and now features a silk commodity street (Hangzhou silk market) selling all kinds of silk, silk clothing, silk scarves, ties,etc, and the China Silk Museum beside West Lake. As the biggest silk museum in the world, China Silk Museum possesses a wealth of historical silk relics and modern fine silk.
- Suzhou in Jiangsu Province
Suzhou has been the silk production center since Tang Dynasty and boasts China’s first professional silk museum. Suzhou’s satin, Nanjing’s brocade and Hangzhou’s silk gauze are among the finest silk in East China. If you’ll travel to Suzhou and want to buy the silk, go visit the Suzhou Silk market in Mudu Old Town.
- Huzhou in Zhejiang Province
Huzhou is renowned for producing the finest Chinese silk fabrics. Huzhou Silk Market covers an area of 100,000 square meters, and offers different grades of silk products.
- Shengze in Jiangsu Province
Shengze Town is one of China’s important silk production centers and silk distribution centers. The Eastern Silk Market China in Shengze houses more than 3000 silk shops with over 2000 types of silk.
Characteristics of Silk
- Feeling of comfort. Real silk contains 100% natural silk, which can provide body feeling of comfort. Real silk is made from azelon, which has perfect biocompatibility with body.
- Good moisture absorption and moisture releasability. The –CHNH and -NH2 silk contained can absorb or release the moisture in the air. The similar hydrophilic group can help our skin keep some moisture and protect from dry at room-temperature, and dissipate body heat and make our body cool in summer days. Besides, silk has strong warmth retention property. Its special fiber structure can prevent the heat dissipate in winter days.
- Good acoustic absorption, dust absorption, and heat resistance. High voidage makes the real silk with good acoustic absorption, dust absorption. Except from making clothing, silk can also be made of carpet, curtain, and wall cloth, etc. The combustion temperature of silk is at 300℃~400℃，so it has good flame-retardant property.
- Uvioresistant performance. The tryptophan and tyrosine in the silk fibroin have good uvioresistant performance. After absorbing ultraviolet rays, silk will have chemical reaction, that’s why the silk is easy to be yellowing.
Tips on Buying Silk
When coming to China, many visitors would like to buy some souvenirs. The smooth silk product is certainly the best choice. Before buying them, it is always wise to learn the common sense of the silk product including the function, identification and maintenance.