Written by Naman Anil Kumar, a grade 8 student
Soft, shiny and rich, silk has always been the fabric for kings and emperors. It has a remarkable history involving a humble worm, a fiercely guarded secret, an ancient trade route, and two rather clever monks.
But first, what is silk and where does it come from?
Fibre is a thin thread-like structure that can be plant-based, like cotton and hemp. Or, it can be man-made like nylon and polyester or, it can come from the body of an animal, like wool and silk. Fibre is transformed into Yarn. Yarn is woven into fabric or cloth.
What is silk?
Silk is a natural fibre that a larva secretes to form a cocoon.
The most common silk comes from the cocoon of mulberry silkworm, Bombyx mori. This silkworm produces a really long and strong silk fibre. The cocoon is made of a single fibre which can be 1 kilometre long! Silk fibre can be woven into a light and soft fabric. The cultivation of silkworm is called sericulture. It takes around 2000 to 3000 silkworm cocoons to make 1 pound of silk.
An accident in a teacup
Silk was discovered thousands of years ago in China. It’s an interesting story.
Once, an empress called Hsi Ling Shih was drinking tea under a mulberry tree when a cocoon fell into her cup. The long fibres of the cocoon began to unravel in hot water. The soft and shiny fibre intrigued her and she decided to cultivate mulberry worms. She separated the fibres from cocoons by dunking them in hot water. Five or six fibres were combined to make silk thread. The thread was woven into fabric.
This is how sericulture began and silk cloth was made in ancient China!
Silk becomes popular
This beautiful shiny fabric was woven in China for the imperial family and the very rich people. Ordinary Chinese were not allowed to use silk. The Chinese used silk fabric paper and silk canvas for painting also. China kept sericulture a closely guarded secret. Nobody was allowed to take silkworms out of China.
Meanwhile, the demand for silk kept growing across the world. Silk was a luxury item and worth its weight in gold. The ancient trade routes from China to Europe came to be known as the Silk Route as it was the most precious item of trade travelling on that route. Other nations wanted to know the secret of making this beautiful and expensive fabric.
But China managed to keep it a secret. It was only in the 5th century AD when two Byzantine monks smuggled the eggs of the silkworm in their hollow bamboo walking sticks out of China, that Europe discovered how silk thread was made. Other countries too started to cultivate silkworms and produce silk fabric.
Sericulture arrived in India from Tibet in ancient times. In India, we have some beautiful varieties of wild silk. Moga, Tasar, and Eri are the varieties found in India. Mulberry silk is also cultivated in many states in India.
China is the largest producer and supplier of silk fabric in the world, while India is the second-largest producer of silk.