The Chinese Empress Si Ling-chi knew a good thing when she saw one. According to Chinese historians, she chanced upon the loose end of a silk fibre from a silkworm cocoon in 2698 BC. Dazzled by the glistening thread, she took to breeding the maggotty looking bugs herself. And so certain was she of its allure that she kept the mysteries of silk production a secret between her and her women courtiers. Breaking the secret meant torture and death.
As disincentives go, it was an enduring one. For thousands of years, silk was China's exclusive preserve and was worn only by Chinese nobility. It wasn't until the Han dynasty, which ended in ad 220, that silk was exported. It quickly came to be prized by the wealthy of the Orient and the Roman Empire as one of the most valuable commodities between the two worlds. The caravan routes known as the Silk Roads stretched from central China, through India, the Middle East and into Europe.
The Chinese monopoly over silk came to an end in the sixth century when the Roman emperor Justinian commanded two Persian monks to bring back from China the secret of how silk was made. They smuggled out silkworm eggs and the seeds of mulberry plants on which the worms feed by hiding them inside hollow bamboo canes, a daring act of industrial sabotage that led to Constantinople becoming the Occidental centre of silk production.
The major source of silk, now almost entirely cultivated, is the Asian silkworm moth or Bombyx Mori. Modern silk production involves carefully selecting the moths, which lay between 500 and 700 eggs on mulberry plants. The hatched larvae are fed on the leaves every couple of hours in a temperature-controlled environment. It taes about five weeks for the silkworm to grow to 70 times its original size and be ready to spin its cocoon. The silk fibre, a thin, white filament of hardened saliva, is spun over a period of two weeks in a continuous layer of figure of eights by the worm's mouth and is held together by a jelly-like protein called sericin. Then the cocoons are heated in special ovens, killing the worms.
Their precious legacy is fibre that can measure up to three kilometres in length. Removing the silk from the cocoon is done by a machine called a filature, which winds together filaments from up to 10 cocoons by drawing them together and twisting them into a single strand. Silk production today is concentrated almost exclusively in Asia. China remains the largest producer of raw silk, yielding an estimated 35,000 metric tons annually. The next largest are Japan and India, whose brown tussah silk is considered inferior.
Warm in winter, cool in summer, strong enough to have been used for parachutes and surgical sutures, silk has a colourful history, and its age-old appeal shows no sign of abating. Vogue fashion features editor Harriet Quick promises that this year it will appear very much back in the forefront of fashion, led by Dior silk prints. "But every fashion era has had silk within it," she says. "It has to do with its sensuous quality and its lustre. It's incredibly feminine." Photograph by: Cary Wolinsky.
The Silk Roads: www.unesco.orgculturesilkroadsindex.html
The history of silk in fashion: www.lalalegs.comhistory.htm
Grow silk worms in class and resources: www.pclaunch.comkayton