Once upon a time in a faraway place, a beautiful Empress was sitting under a Mulberry tree in her garden enjoying some tea when suddenly a round, white, cocoon fell into her bowl. Angrily, the Empress grabbed the cocoon out of her tea and saw a thread unwind from the cocoon. The Empress soon decided the thread from the cocoon could be spun into a wonderful yarn. Thus began the origin of silk.
Empress His-Ling-Shih was soon to be known as the Goddess of Silk. She was credited with the rearing of silkworms and the invention of the loom. At first the use of silk was reserved only for the Emperor and other dignitaries.
Eventually a cottage industry developed for producing silk in China. For six months a year, every woman in every family devoted a large portion of her day to the feeding, tending and supervision of the silkworms and to the subsequent unraveling, spinning, weaving, dyeing and embroidering of silk.
Silk production was a very demanding process. First the blind, flightless moth, Bombyx mori, laid approximately 400 eggs in a period of four to six days. As the adult moth had rudimentary mouth parts and did not eat during its short life, it died shortly after laying the eggs. Thousands of tiny eggs, the size of pin heads, were gathered and placed in a warm environment for about ten days until they hatched. In was said that the women put the eggs in little sacks and placed them between their breasts until the eggs could be laid out on trays. Family member would stoke the fires around the clock to maintain the temperature. The hatched larvae (caterpillars) were about ¼” long. The larvae were fed fresh picked, chopped mulberry leaves every half hour night and day.
Silk fibers are very thin, about 1/2500 of an inch in diameter. Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons are required to make a pound of silk. During a six week period, the larvae would shed their skin four times. Finally, the larvae, grown to about three inches, quit eating, changed color and attached themselves to a branch or frame and began spinning their cocoons-rotating their heads in a figure-eight movement for the next three to eight days. The cocoon produced a continuous filament approximately one kilometer in length (3,280 feet}. At this stage the cocoon was treated with hot air, steam, or boiling water to loosen the tightly woven filaments. The silk was then unwound. Filaments from four to eight cocoons were reeled and twisted together to make one thread.
For at least two thousand years the Chinese held the closely guarded secret to the source of their silk: the indigenous Bombyx mori (Latin for silkworm of the mulberry tree). In order to maintain their monopoly on silk, anyone trying to smuggle eggs or cocoons out of China, or in any way to reveal the process, was punished by death.
Outside of China, numerous attempts were made to explain the origin of silk. Pliny, the Roman historian, wrote in 70 BC “Silk was obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water…”. The Roman poet, Virgil, believed that silk was combed from leaves. Dionysus, the Greek historian, thought it was made from flowers. Others thought the silk threads grew on special trees or were the down of a special bird.
In spite of their secrecy, the Chinese lost their monopoly on silk production. A story is told that in AD 550 two Monks hid silkworm eggs in hollow bamboo walking sticks and brought them from Asia to a Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, in Constantinople, where he created a thriving silk industry. Dominance in silk production moved from East to West and back again.
Sericulture is the name given to silkworm farming. Silkworms reached Sicily in the 12th century and sericulture migrated north to the Como area by the 16th Century. Como had ample lakes and a thriving Mulberry farming business, and the silk industry thrived there. In the 16th century France surpassed China in silk manufacturing. In the 19th century, Japan exported the most silk in the world. China regained their dominance of silk production after WWII, and now along with Japan, manufactures more than half the world’s silk.
Today undyed, raw silk (fabric and yarn) is purchased from China, finished in Como, Italy and supplied to the fashion houses of Paris, Milan and New York City. If you own a silk scarf, tie, blouse or dress by any big name fashion house, chances are the silk came from Como, Italy.
The silkworm is not a worm but a moth pupa, and it is only one of several insects that create the animal protein silk as it weaves its cocoons and webs. The silk of spiders has industrial uses. In modern times, scientists are studying the silk from the Golden Orb Spider which is said to be almost as strong as Kevlar. Kevlar, the strongest man-made material is drawn from concentrated sulphuric acid. Spider silk is drawn from water. Unfortunately, spiders in a confined space will cannibalize each other, and thus are too difficult to manage. All kinds of industrial uses could be found if they could produce spider silk: from items such as parachutes to artificial tendons and ligaments.
Silkworm moths produce twice as much silk as spiders.
Recently two men in Madagascar worked for five years and a team of 80 people to gather and produce the silk thread from the golden orb spider to create a beautiful cape that was on loan at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011. Read about it here: http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/spidersilk
Much more immediate gratification (in just one afternoon) can be had by creating your own unique silk scarf. There are many methods to dye and paint silk. One method will be taught by Karen Snow of Silk for All Seasons at our Spring Study Group March 18 from 1:00-3:00 pm. Fun, fast and easy using vegetable dyes. Cost for materials for one scarf will be $35. The class will be held in Oak Park, space is limited. (15 people maximum) Club members may register and pay for the class on line at (click this link) https://gcoprf.org/?page_id=5393 A letter will be emailed to you acknowledging your payment and giving the location of the class.
. . .