Textile Fabrics: Silk

Figure 1.--Damacus since the rise of the Islamic Caliphate (7th century) has been renowned for the production of luxurious silk textiles. This photograph shows a young boy feeding mulberry leaves to silk works on Mount Lebanon, Syria. Lebano and Syria at the time were part of the Ottoman Empire. The photograph was taken in 1914, just before the outbreak of Wold War I. Notice the box that reads 'Made in Rusia' in English.

Silk is the soft lustrous fiber obtained as a filament from the cocoon of the insects, especially the silk worm. Silk was first produced in China and for centuries was a carefully guarded secret. As it is an expensive fabric it was only used in high quality garments for wealthy families. Silk was commonly used for accesories such as the bows for sailor and Fauntleroy suits or sashes. Some boys summer suits, including sailor suits, were made from Shantung silk. This was a plain weave silk fabric made from less expensive yarns with irregular or uneven texture. Few textiles have played such an important role in history. It was esentially solk that began what e now call globilization tiing tother the East and West. And the vehicle for the earliest contacts was the famed Silk Road.


Silk is produced from the fibers of silkworm cacoons. The silkworm is the larval form of several species of moth used to produce silk. Comercial silk generally comes from the pupa of the silkworm moth (Bombys mori and the related yamamai and permyi moths). While the silkworm moth is the principal species used for commercial silk production, the silk of other insects has various specialty uses. Spider silk was, for rxample, once used as crosshairs in telescopes and optical instruments


Historians debate the time that silk first appeared in China. The only thing that historians agree on is that sericulture developed at a very early point, before the advent of written history. Some believe it first appeared in the 27th century BC. Other aspects of silk history are better known, although there is also considerable unknowns as to the spread of sericultur round the world. There is no controversy, however, as to the importance of silk in world trade and thus history. It was silk that first brought the East and Western worlds in contact.


Silk is one of the oldest textile fibers knopwn to man. The history of the silkworm, which is also the story of silk, which originated in ancient China. Some of the stories have been handed down through the generations and are probably based party on fact and partly on legend and myth. Legend dates the developments of silk to the 27th Century BC when the Chinese first began weaving the cacoon fibers into luxurious silk fabric. Many authors or more conservative, but most agree that it was some time before the 1300 BC. The most persistant account is that about 2640 B.C. a Chinese Empress, Si-Ling-Chi, was watching the glistening amber cocoons that little worms were spinning in the mulberry trees in the palace gardens. Another account has her accidently dropping a silkworm cocoon into her hot cup of tea and as she retreaved it, a silken thread unraveled. She found that it was one, increably long strand of shiny material. Fascinated, she pulled strands from several cocoons through her ring to form a thicker thread. Eventually, with the help of her ladies of the court, she spun the threads into a beautiful piece of cloth to make a robe for the emperor, Huang-Ti. No other fabric could compete in luxury to silk. This magnificent material, became known at the "cloth of kings". For thousand of years on the royal family of China had silk. The Chinese kept the production of silk a closely guarded state secret for 2,500 years providing an enormously valuable renewable resource for both domestic consumption and trade. The material was sold to the rulers of the West for huge profits. The source of the shiny thread that made the material was not revealed. The penalty in China for telling that the silk came from the cocoons of the little silkworms was death! This secret is one of the most sucessfully guarded secret in man's history. The Chinese retained their secret for an incredible 30 Centuries. Foreigners concocted some very strange ideas as to the origin of silk. Here are a few: Silk came from the colored petals of flowers in the Chinese desert, silk was made of wondrously soft soil, silk came from a spider-like animal that ate until it burst open and the silk threads were found inside its body, and silk came from the silky fuzz on special leaves. These ideas seem far-fetched today -- but in ancient times they were serious theories. And we note various theories about how the secret got out from China. While silk is now produced in several countries, Chinese production continues to be regarded by most as the highest quality available.


The koreans as might be expected given their geographic location were the first to acquire the Chinese secret of sericulture. One account indicates that waves of Chinese immigrants brought the silk secret to Korea (about 200 BC).


The Japanese were the next to learn the Chinse secret. Legend has it that the Japanese in about the 4th Century AD carried off four Chinese maidens, who knew the secret of silk, along with mulberry shoots and silk moth eggs. The Japanese also guarded the secret. Today Japan is the leading producer of silk!

Central Asia: Khotan

One report suggests that a prince of Khotan ( modern Hetian), a kingdom on the Silk Road at the rim of Taklamakan desert, courted and married a Chinese princess. The princess upon leaving China smuggled out silkworm eggs by hiding them in her voluminous hairpiece. Khotan kept the secret for a time. It kept the price of silk high in westen markets.


The arrival of the silk secret in India is the subject of considerable seculation. We mote estimtes varying fom the the first century BC to the third century AD. This is, however, not universally accepted and some sources believe that silk was being produced in India as early as the 1st millenium BC. One account claims that a Chinese princess married an Indian prince. She carried silkworm eggs and mulberry shoots in her elaborate headdress and the secret of raising silkworms in her head, thus spreading the culture of silk to India.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Chinese silks reached Europe over the Silk Road and were greatly admired and coveted. Europe with no knowledge of how silk ws produced were prepared to pay huge prices. Eventually the secret of silk worms also reached Europe anf silk production began there. Silk was known to the ancient Greeks. The first documented reference is by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. Alexander's conquest helped to intoduce many Asian materials to Europe. By the 2nd century BC the famous silk Road linking China with the Greek and Roman Mediterranean west had become established. Silk was a very valuable commodity in both Greece and Rome. A silk garment could sell for its weight in gold--explaing why the Chiese were so desperate to retain the secret. And a huge volume od solk could be shipped. It was lighter and unbreakable and easilh compacted. Perfect for the Silk Road. Until about 550 AD all silk garments in Europe made from fabrics or threads imported at great cost from Asia. Some historians believe that the purchase in gold of silk by the Romans was a factor in the decline of the Roman Empire.


The Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century AD splint into a Western and Eastern Empire which is today known as Byzantium. The Emperor Justinian of Constantinople was responsible for obtaining the secret of silk production in the West. He learned the secret of silk from two poor Nestorian monks. Justinian sent them back to China to get some eggs and mulberry shoots for him. They returned many years later with the eggs and shoots hidden inside their hollowed-out walking sticks/ bamboo staves (about 550 AD). They then oversaw the birth of a new silk industry. The Byzantine state created imperial workshops throughout Anatolia, The imperial workshops monopolized production and the Byzantine state attempted to keep silk an imperial secret. The Byzantines undercut the market for basic-grade silk. High-quality luxurious silk textiles were a different matter. They coninued to be woven in China and commanding high prices throughout the Silk Road, even in Byzantium. Commerce along the Silk Road thus continued as before. Eventually Byzantiym became renowed for its luxurios silks, at least in Europe.


The Persians are known to have acquired the silk secret (6th century AD). This was before theArab onquest and Islaminization of Persia. We are not sure how they learned, but there are several possibilities as Khotan, India, and Byzantium by this time had the secret. The Persians after acquiring the secret, mastered the art of silk weaving, creaeting their own beutiful patterns and techniques.

Middle East

There are Old Testament reference to silk. The silk of course came from China. Onlky when Justinian obtained the silk secret did production begin in the Midle East. At the time, the Levant and the Middle East were part of the Byzanine Empire. The Arab conquest of the Levant (Greatr Syria) placed the silk secret in Arab hands (7th cenury). Theconquest of Prsia by Arab armies bought further silk industry technology in Arab hands. The Arabs were speially intersted in silk because of its commrcail possibilities gicen their control of important trade routes. They planted mulberry‑trees and cultivated silk worms which under the Byzantines had bee primarily begun in Anatolia. Dmascus became espcially important as a center of sericulture. To this day Damascus silks are synonamous with luxurios textiles. Silk workshops florished in Arab cities. The Omeyad calif Mouawiya bin Abi Soufian founded a workshop in his own Palace in Damascus (665 AD). And from the Levant further Arab conquest seiculture spread to Sicily and Spain (Al Andalus), a step in increasing Europan interest in silk. . Important worksh[s were fojnded in Aleppo and Tyr. Syrian silk products were sold in Europe markets. Crusaders were struck with beauty of Arab silks, helping to expand demad in Europe. At the end of the Ayyoubid Caliphate and during the Mamelouk epoch, silk production was large, especially the alure ofgolden silk. Even during the During Mamelouk era nd the Ottoman conquest, Damascus continued to be renowned fot its silk textiles. One soorce reports that in some Islamic teachings, Muslim men were forbidden to wear silk. This apparently because it was seen as feminate. Of course ni was ebtirely acceotavle for Muslim women to wear silk garments. An there was no problem with Muslim merchants to trade in silks.


Constaninople, the Byzantine capital was a crosroads city. Even so silk industries did not spread to Europe for centuries. Arabs after conqyering North Africa, including Tunisia, gradually sized Sicily from the Byzantines (9th century AD). Several Moorish emirs governed the island. It is beliecved that during this period sericulture ws introduced. The Crusades exposed luxurious silk texttiles to Europeans. This greatly increased the demand for silkn in the Christian West (11th-13th centuries). After the Second Crusace, a silk culture industry begins to develop in Italy. Some 2,000 talented silk weavers were moved from Constaninople to Italy. From there silk production became widespread throughout Europe.


The culture and manufacture of silk was first reported in Europe beyond Sicily and southern Italy when silk was produved in nothern Italy and soon spread to southern France (14th century). The quality, however, was not comparable to Eastern silk and Eurpean production was limited.

Western Europe

Trade routes to China and India were controlled by the Turks and Arabs, And this only increased with the fall of Byzantium (1453). Thus Chinese silks and other goods (porcelin and spices) from the East were very expensive. It also meant that anyone who could obtain goods from the East could become very rich. And there ws more than China offering woburous producrs. There was also India and the spice islands. This engendsered the voyages of discovery in the 15th century to establish direct trade contacts with the East. And as the countrie of Western Europe were cut out of the trade wigh the East, ot was primarily from the Atlntic coast countries of Western Europe that became involved with the maritime trade. Until this point, the modern division between a prosperous westen Europe and a poor less developed east did not exist. The voyages of discovery were led by the Portuguese and the far sighted Prince Henry the Navigator.

Making Silk

If the moths were allowed to emerge from the cocoons, they would make holes in the silk thread. The silkworm farmers kill the pupas inside the cocoons by baking them in a hot oven. Then they soak the cocoons in boiling water to loosen the threads. A person finds the end of the thread and places it on a winding bobbin. Then a machine unrolls the cocoon, winding the silk from five cocoons together to make one silk thread. Then the thread is woven into cloth.


It is the luxurious feel and shiny appearance of silk that made it such an appealoing fabric. Silk has, however, many other important characteristics as a textile fabric. Silk's natural high absorbency means it accepts all dyes, readily displaying vibrant colours often copied but never bettered by man-made equivalents. Silk has the longest strand of any natural plant or animal fiber. A continous strand from the silk worm may run hundreds of yards. It was also a material of incredible strength. The tensile strength of silk is about 29,500 kg per square inch. [Temple, pp. 120-121.] These characteristics have had huge ramifications over time. They lead to the invention of the spinning wheel in China. They were utilized by the Mongols who instead of heavy, restruictive metal armour wore silken padded armor. This not only offered protection, but was instrumental in avoiding infection among wounded soldiers.

The Spinning Wheel

The enormous length of silk threads created a huge need for some kind of winding device. As noted above, silk in China may date from the 27th century BC, although some authors give more conservative estimates, most agrree it was before the 14th century BC. No one knows when the Chinese first fiber winding machines, but they appear to have been developed out of a need to form silk treads out of silk fibers. There is mention of silk fiber winding devices in Chinese dictionaries by the 2nd century AD. The initial devices were quilling machines which may date to the 1st century BC. Actual spinning wheels. No one knoiws when they first appeared in China. It is known that spinning wheels were being widely used in China by the 11th century. By that time, cotton culture had developed in China and spinning wheels appear to have been a way of adapting silk winders so that cotton fibers could be created. Historians believe that the the spinning wheel was one of the devices that Marco Polo brought back to Italy from China. While this is conchecture, there is no evidence of spinning wheels being used in Europe until the late 13th century. [Temple, pp. 120-121.]

Types of Silk

Many types of silk have been used in the manufacture of clothing.

Shantung silk

Shantung is a plain weave silk fabric made from yarns with irregular or uneven texture.

Tussore silk

Tussore is a rough silk from India. It was commonly woven in its natural , undyed tan color. It is alternatively spelled "tussah" ot "tusseh". It might be used to produce better made children's smocks.

The Silk Road

The history of the famed Silk Road is one of many instances in which clothing and fabrics have played a major role in human history. The story of the silk road is one of military adventures and conquest, adventuresome explorers, religious pilgrims, and great philosophers. While it is silk which is often, naturally enough, most strongly associated with the silk road, the flow of ideas and religion as an almost unintended aspect of the flow of trade may have been one of the most significant impacts. Of course most of the people who traversed the silk road were not great thinkers, but common tradesmen who transported their merchandise at great risk for the substantial profits that could be made. They moved cammal caravans over some of the most hostile terraine on the planet. The ilk road tranversed deserts, mountains and the seemingly endless Central Asian steppe. Some of the great figures of history are associated with the Silk Road, including Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. Merchandice may have moved over the Silk Road as early as the 5th century BC. The Silk Road is believed to have become an established trade route by the 1st century BC and continued to be important until the 16th century when more reliable sea routes were established as a result of the European voyages of discovery.

Historical Significance

The Mongols

The Silk Road played a major role in the Mongols rise to power and the maintenance of their empire. The Mongols defeated imperial Chines armies with sophisticated tactics. They extorted great wealth from Chinese emperors by pillage and tribute demands. There were also profits from border trade and the sale of luxury goods through the Silk Road. There was a long history of Central Asian nomads threatening China. This was the reason that the Great wall was built. Nomads during the Han dynasty (209BC-155AD) and the Tang dynasty (582-840AD) pilaged major Chinese cities and carried out border incursions. The luxury goods that flowed from China could be sold on the Silk Road for imense profits. This is part of the reason that the Mongols were able to conquer a huge empire. The Pan-Mongolica imposed in the 13th and 14th century created security conditions on the Silk Road thar increased the volume of trade.

The Opium Wars

The Opium War was a war between the United Kingdom and Imperial China. The British objected to China's attempt to limit British shipments of Indian opium to China. The Chinese were reacting to ikncreasingly levels of addition among the Chinese people. It is notable that as late as 1840 that British traders were having difficulty supplying goods that were of interest to the Chinese in exchange for the many Chinese products (especially porcelin and silks) that were in demand in the West. One of the few British products that was in great demand was Indian opium. The War was the British effort to force the Imperial Government to cease its efforts to prevent opium importation. The War ended in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking which opened specified Chinese ports to foreign trade and the cession by China of the island of Hong Kong to the British. The Opium War was a critical turning point in Chinese history. In the West it is a conflict virtually unknown except to historians. In China every schoolboy knows about it.

Boys Clothing

Silk was commonly used for accesories such as the bows for sailor and Fauntleroy suits or sashes. Some boys summer suits, including sailor suits, were made from Shantung silk. This was a plain weave silk fabric made from less expensive yarns with irregular or uneven texture.


Temple, Robert. The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1986), 254p.


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Created: April 5, 1999
Last updated: 5:34 AM 7/27/2014