The history of silk
According to Chinese legend, Empress His Ling Shi was first person to discover silk as weavable fibre in the 27th century BC. Whilst sipping tea under a mulberry tree, a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. The empress became so enamoured with the shimmering threads she discovered their source, the Bombyx mori silkworm found in the white mulberry. The empress soon developed sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom. This is the earliest surviving reference to silk history and for nearly 3 millennia, the Chinese retained a global monopoly on silk production.
Initially first reserved for Chinese royalty, silk spread gradually through the Chinese culture both geographically and socially. From there, silken garments began to reach regions throughout Asia. Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants, because of its texture and lustre.
During the later half of the first millennium BC, demand for this exotic fabric eventually created the lucrative trade route now known as the Silk Road, taking silk westward and bringing gold, silver and wools to the East. Named after its most valuable commodity, silk was considered even more precious than gold. The Chinese realized the value of this beautiful material they were producing and kept its secret safe from the rest of the world for more than 30 centuries.
By CE200, sericulture had spread to Korea via Chinese immigrants, emerging in India, Japan and Persia around CE300 and reaching Europe around CE550 via the Byzantine Empire. In the 7th century, the Arabs conquered Persia, capturing their magnificent silks in the process. Sericulture and silk weaving thus spread through Africa, Sicily, and Spain as the Arabs swept through these lands. Andalusia was Europe’s main silk-producing center in the 10th century.
By the 13th century however, Italy had gained dominance and entered the hall of fame in silk history. By the 17th Century, France was challenging Italy’s leadership, and the silk looms established in the Lyons area at that time are still famous today for the unique beauty of their weaving.
In Medieval Europe, silk was used only by the nobility.
The nineteenth century and industrialization saw the downfall of the European silk industry. Cheaper Japanese silk, especially driven by the opening of the Suez Canal, was one of the many factors driving the trend as was the advent of manmade fibre, such as nylon which replaced traditionally silk products such as stockings and parachutes.
Japan became the world’s biggest producer of raw silk until China recaptured her position in the 1970’s. Today, around 125,000 metric tons of silk is produced in the world. Almost two thirds of that production takes place in China.
Producing high quality silk (sericulture) is a lengthy, complex process that demands constant close attention and the Chinese have perfected this over the centuries. China is committed to continually elevate its quality by investing in the latest manufacturing machinery.