The Brief History of Silk: the Origin and the Spread

As a popular material for gorgeous clothes, silk has always been favored around the world. Although you have worn silk clothes for some time, you might not be aware of the history of silk. Through this post, you will learn the brief history of this charming fabric. Now, read and dive into the journey to silk.

What Is Silk?

When it comes to the materials for clothes, accessories, bedding, and so on, silk has always been a popular choice. This natural fabric, mostly made from Bombyx mori silkworms, has the advantages of being lightweight, soft, and comfortable. Whether it’s in the process of draping, dying, or printing, the performance can always impress you. That’s why silk is capable of displaying itself with a bright and colorful appearance. Silk is not only used as a decoration but also resistant to soil, mildew, and moths due to its unique properties. All this superiority contributes to the vogue of silk through its long history.

The Ancient Legend of Silk

The history of silk can be traced back to an ancient legend from about 5,000 years ago. According to this Chinese legend, the inventor of silk is Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih (also known as Leizu), the wife of the Yellow Emperor.

The Inventor of Silk: Leizu

One day, she was sharpening the swords under a mulberry tree. That’s when a cocoon fell into her cup of tea by accident. As she picked up her cup, she surprisingly found something unravelling inside the cup. And a moment later, a few shiny threads rolled out.

Searching for a long time around the tree, she discovered that this fine thread was made from an insect called a cocoon. A brilliant idea flashed across her mind – that’s how she started to weave it into a luxurious fabric. She then devised a process of producing the silk by forming, boiling, and weaving.

This is how ancient legend tells the history of silk. Then, what about the historical evidence that can prove the earliest appearance of silk?

The Emergence of Silk: the Historical Evidence

The historical evidence confirms that the history of silk is actually earlier than the ancient legend. The first appearance of silk can date back over 8,500 years. Excavated at Jiahu, China, the biomolecular evidence shows traces of prehistoric silk fibroin, weaving tools, and bone needles. This evidence suggests the early textile-making skills in the Neolithic Age.

As for the craft, the Yangshao culture sites (particularly in Xia County, Shanxi) display silk artifacts dating from 4000 to 3000 BC. Here, a cocoon of the domesticated Bombyx mori silkworm is found in the relic. Fragments of silk fabric from 3630 BC were also found at Qingtaicun, Rongyang, Henan.

All historical evidence above signifies that the first emergence of silk was even earlier than the oral legend.

Silk: The Fancy Secrets Locked Inside China

The secret of China’s silk production lies in the cultivation of indigenous silk moths, particularly the Bombyx mori. Believed to originate from Bombyx mandarin, which only grows in China, these silkworms produce smoother, finer, and rounder filaments. They can make a long, continuous, and stronger thread than other silk moth species.

So, how was silk used in ancient China? Silk’s value in ancient China surpassed even gold, recognized for its shimmer, durability, and elegant drape. Only the royalty and the noble class were allowed to wear silk clothes. This strict regulation made silk a significant symbol of luxury.

Through the long history of silk, China almost dominated silk production for 1,000 years or so. To keep this secret tight, the governor enacted a series of harsh laws. For example, those who attempt to export silkworms or eggs will be condemned to death.

However, despite significant efforts to keep silk production a closely guarded secret, information gradually leaked through Chinese migrants who settled abroad. If you want to know how silk spread throughout the whole world, read the following section to learn more details.

The Silk Road

How the Secret of Silk Was Spread to the World

The very secret of silk was spread around the world at different times. Among these places, Asia is the first stop due to its close distance. As for Europe, the secret carried with two silkworm eggs was first brought to this land in the 6th century.

Asia

India: During the Gupta period (AD 400-600), a Buddhist monk introduced the Chinese silk-reeling techniques to India. This was the time when the history of silk in India began.

Japan: The history of silk in Japan started around 300 AD; sericulture appeared in Japan as it was introduced by international students who studied in China.

Korea: Also around 300 AD, few Chinese immigrated to Korea. Along with this migration, the history of silk in Korea started.

Europe

Europe started its silk history in 552 AD. This year, two Nestorian Church monks smuggled silkmoth eggs to Constantinople, which hatched into larvae and became the ancestor silkmoths of the Byzantine silk industry.

Despite setting up its own silk production like imperial silk workshops, the Byzantine Empire was never able to compete with China in terms of high-class silk products. They mainly produced low to medium-grade silk, and imports from China were still the preferred choice for consumers seeking high-quality silk.

In spite of the secret being exposed, China maintained its dominant status when it came to silk products, especially high-quality ones. Therefore, although spread around the world, silk was still considered a luxury and served mainly by the nobles. However, this situation, along with the history of silk, had changed in the 13th century.

Change in the Dominance of Silk

First Turn: Italy

For natural and cultural reasons, Italy had become the highest producer of silk in the 13th century.

The climate in southern Italy was very suitable for the planting and growth of mulberry trees, making the conditions for cultivating silkworms very good. At the same time, the development of commerce and trade promoted Italy’s silk business.

Therefore, after the arrival of a large number of skilled artisans, Italy’s silk industry achieved unprecedented development.

Changed Again: France

Although the quality of Italian silk was second to none at the time, its prices remained high. This situation made France decide to vigorously develop its national silk industry.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, France took measures including but not limited to the following to vigorously promote the development of their silk industry: developing advanced weaving machines, employing Italian professional artisans, and developing a prosperous sericulture industry in Provence.

The combined effect of these moves was to capture Italy’s dominance over silk.

Rise Again: China

Although silk from Italy and France had achieved unprecedented development, China still maintained its status as a significant silk country due to its long history of silk and its softest silk fabric.

By the 15th century, silk production in Europe faced challenges such as economic decline, war, and changes in trade routes. The drop in specific silk production in Europe caused the balance of silk production to shift toward China.

China, for its part, has taken its silk industry to the next level through several measures. They developed technical expertise, promoted government support, and boosted trade along the Silk Road.

China’s domain over silk regained its first place in the 15th century and later due to internal and external reasons.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the history of silk is a fantastic journey that lasts thousands of years. From its ancient origins in China to its spread across the world, silk has remained a luxurious and indispensable symbol. Today, silk remains a popular material for clothing, accessories, bedding, and many other products. And the unique properties contribute to its timeless classic. If you want to appreciate the beauty of silk by producing related products, contact us to have an attempt at silk right now!

More Resources

Grades of Silk – Source: Sinosilk

Uses of Silk – Source: Sinosilk

Is Silk Vegan? – Source: Sinosilk

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