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The History of Silk

Origins of Silk & The Silk Road

The origins of silk date back thousands of years with historical documentation being the only means of understanding where the practices of cultivating and weaving silk fibers harvested from the cocoons of various moths began. Not all countries and regions were as meticulous in their practices of recording and collecting details of their cultures; making the true history of silk somewhat difficult to discern. Most historians and archeologists, however, would agree that the practices and traditions of silk evolved in ancient China.

China

China map
China in the Neolithic era.

Sericulture, the process of raising silk worms for the production of silk, is credited to China and dates back to 3000 BC in Zhejiang where the earliest excavated silk was discovered in a group of ribbons, threads and woven fragments, all dyed red. The Chinese suggest, however, that the discovery of silk was during the reign of the Yellow Emperor (2677-2597 BC) with a romanticized story of Lady Hsi-Ling, wife of the Yellow Emperor Huang-Ti, observing the effect of her hot tea on a cocoon which accidentally dropped from a mulberry tree into her cup! Although she is regarded as the Lady of the Silkworms, modern carbon-dating methods have made possible a more accurate idea of time scale, which credits Fo Xi, the first Chinese Emperor with teaching the Chinese people to cultivate mulberry trees and to raise silkworms, which feed on the leaves of these trees.

Silk moth 1
Bombyx Mori
Silk moth 2
Bombyx Mori Cocoons

The secret of silk, and China’s silk production, lies in the indigenous varieties of wild silk moths—one in particular, the blind, flightless Bombyx mori. The original wild ancestor of this cultivated species is believed to be Bombyx mandarina Moore, a silk moth living on the white mulberry tree, and unique to China. The silkworm of this particular moth produces a thread whose filament is smoother, finer and rounder than that of other silk moths and can be reeled as a long, continuous and stronger thread than the filament produced from other species of moths.

Shang dynasty
Ancient Chinese pictogram (Shang Dynasty)

During the Shang dynasties (1766-1401 BC), as trade opened westward, silk production expanded to other cultures, utilizing other types of cocoons. During this time period, pictograms, which were inscribed on oracle bones and tortoiseshell, often depicted sericulture and the importance of silk. Stories of offerings being made to the Silkworm Goddess indicate the regard for this highly esteemed textile. Reeling silk and spinning were considered household duties for women during this period, while weaving and embroidery were carried out in workshops as well as the home.

Chinese character
Chinese character for "Li" or the "virtue of orderliness and principled refinements"

From ancient times, the Chinese evolved strict systems of rituals, and a philosophy of ‘Li’, which translates as the ‘virtue of orderliness and principled refinements’, or, the ‘virtue of propriety’. This all-encompassing philosophy has a relevance to the subject of silk since there was a hierarchy which influenced everything. Chinese history indicates that rules were drawn up regulating clothes, colors, fabrics and decoration, and punishments were meted out if these were violated. All motifs and colors had symbolic significance and were not merely decorative. Silk was considered the premier fabric of the upper class for their garments and their hangings, upholstery, throne seats and backs.



India

Before we reach the destinations of the Silk Road around the Mediterranean, there is another ancient source of sericulture to consider that has been, and continues to be, a major contributor to the history of silk: India.

India map silk
Map of India's silk centers. About 97% of Indian silk is produced in the five Indian states.
Silk tussah
India's textured silk tussar

India’s textile history is rich and complex, with its silk production dating back 4000 years ago in the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. With a number of indigenous silk moths, many of whose cocoons are suitable for weaving, India’s silk history is vastly different from that of other countries. Known for famous textured silks (tussahs), early textured silks woven from wild cocoons are referred to as bark cloth and in the region around Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, tussahs are still known by this name. Although most of the wild moths must break the filaments of their cocoons to escape, one tussah moth, Antheraea pernyl, leaves an opening in the cocoon that it seals with sericin, so that the filament remains intact. As recently as the seventeenth century, Europeans believed tussahs were spun from a plant—hence the name ‘herba goods’ for these silks. The eminent Dutch botanist Rumphius was surprised to discover a chrysalis inside upon dissecting a “fruit”, ending the misnomer.

India map
Map of India during the Gupta period

A Buddhist monk is credited with bringing the Chinese techniques of silk-reeling to India during the Gupta period (AD 400-600). It is presumed that he brought the eggs of the Bombyx mori, for the technique of reeling is only applicable to that particular type of cocoon. Records of temple donations given as offerings from silk weavers for increased silk production indicate that the weavers from India were eager to expand their craft. The customs surrounding the care and gathering of wild cocoons have become ritualized and have been so for thousands of years. India’s silk forests are considered sacred and tribal people protect the caterpillars from predators and harvest the cocoons. Silk was deemed by the Hindus to be a pure substance, so pure that it was not considered necessary to wash it before ceremonial use. According to the Mitakashara law, mere exposure was sufficient, for silk was ‘washed by air’. Orthodox Vaishnavite Hindus and Jains abhor the taking of life, and certain holy centers produce a silk known as matka (mutka) from the cocoons of moths which have completed their cycle and broken out of their cocoons. Since no killing is involved, this silk is considered unpolluted and suitable for the garments and ropes of the sacred processional chariots and for the ritual swings used during the Krishna festival of Sawan.

India is credited with developing the art of draping cloth, exemplified in the sari, which, although not the only form of Hindu feminine dress, may be thought to epitomize India internationally. The basic sari is a length of unsewn material that is draped, with over a hundred variations of doing so and regionally dictated decoration. A great deal of silk is produced and processed in southern India, and saris from the south are made of rich, heavy silk.

Indian sari
Indian silk sari draped in various styles.

India is a vast repository of ancient motifs, techniques and ideas and is unique among silk-producing countries in the rich variety of silks it produces. India ranks second, after China, among mulberry silk producers and the largest proportion of this silk is produced in Karnataka. India is also the second largest producer of tussah silk. Sericulture is home-based in India as it is in China, and the low cost of labor contributes largely to the commercial strength of both countries. In recent years, government-supported bodies have worked hard to promote the revival of hand skills in danger of dying out, and western designers have turned to India for special textile finishes and embroidery details.

Japan

Weaving statue
Silk weaving in Japan

During the Shang dynasties (1766-1401 BC), as trade opened westward, silk production expanded to other cultures, utilizing other types of cocoons and India and China linked East and West through its silks. Around the first century AD, it is documented that along the East-West trade routes that connected India with the Near East and ultimately with the Mediterranean, Indian traders were actively importing Chinese silks and exporting Indian wild silks and fine cotton muslins along these perilous land and sea routes where many lives and cargoes were lost.

“The garment was the person; it was the direct expression of his or her personality” was Lady Murasaki’s remark in The Tale of Genji (Heian period, 794-1185 AD) which offers us an insight into the role of silk in Japan. It is uncertain when the Japanese sericulture began with the indigenous Yamamai silk moth, but Chinese history indicates that its silk technology and the Bombyx mori reached Japan around 28 BC. By Lady Murasaki’s era, silk was a long established feature of elegant life and the kimono was the most important Japanese garment. It was worn by fashionable ladies, sometimes as many as twenty kimonos at a time, all made of the thinnest, finest, most transparent silk, giving a rainbow appearance as the coloring of each layer melted into those above and below. Like the Chinese, silk garments were reserved for the upper class and the ordinary Japanese people dressed in garments that were homespun of hemp and ramie.

Chinese trading post
Japanese Buddhist temple where silks are preserved in the temple treasuries and carefully conserved.

The introduction of Buddhism to Japan, sometime after 500 AD, is important in silk history because silks are preserved in the temple treasuries and have been carefully recorded and conserved ever since they were given, either as valued gifts themselves, or as wrappings for precious offerings. Silk fabrics are still seen as a precious commodity, whether in modern day or history.

The silk road
The Silk Road

As trade routes became the highways of ancient times for merchants, artisans and craftsmen to bring their wares, goods, materials, supplies, cultural beliefs and practices from the eastern regions of Asia to Western Europe, a very distinct route emerged that further expanded the role of silk in history. The Silk Road was named for this specific commodity as these trade routes developed, and the East-West passage brought sericulture to Central Asia and eventually, Western Europe.

The earliest silks discovered along this route date back to 500-400 BC in the Altai Mountains. While we do not know the antiquity of sericulture outside China, we do know that varieties of silkworms were introduced to Central Asia during the Han period and eventually made their way to the region known as the Iranian Plateau. Frequently traveling together, silk, spices and rare treasures made their way by land routes through Persia from the Central Asian passages or by ship through the Persian Gulf to the ports at the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates. From there, they were transported to Syria, the prime Mediterranean point for dispersal of Eastern luxuries. The northerly land routes carried Chinese silks, while Eastern vessels brought India’s wild silks.

East to West Expansion

The Caucasus, Armenia, and Gilan south of the Caspian formed part of the ancient Silk Road long before its ‘official’ opening in the second century BC during the time of the Romans and the Han. Silk had traveled to the Mediterranean and Europe from Greek trading posts on the Black Sea, and has been found in the Danube region, embroidered and woven into garments of the Hallstatt culture of the 6th century BC, and in several other early sites.

The Parthian period (123-87 BC) indicates garments decorated with silk cord and patterns in silk fabrics were dominated by the pomegranate, the symbol of the Water Goddess Anahita. The Parthians gave way to the Sassanian dynasty, which worked hard to establish their own silk industry. Their weavers created highly distinctive designs and their influence can be traced through the centuries to the present day.

Silk garment
Parthian garment decorated with silk

As knowledge of silk spread westward through the centuries, almost every country attempted sericulture and attempted to develop silk weaving. The luxury, beauty, refinement and attraction of silk are such that other countries over the centuries were focused on developing their own silk production as a means of strengthening their own trade.

Silk garment 2
European silk weaving

While documented evidence proves that silk was imported and woven in ancient Roman times, it appears that the earliest attempts of sericulture in Italy took place in the Po Valley in the tenth century and in the area around Salerno during the first half of the eleventh century. The essentials of silk processing were known and used in the Byzantine and Islamic empires, and it seems that in southern Italy, most of the work of mulberry culture was carried out by Jewish, Greek and Arab immigrants who brought their knowledge of silk production from the Near East. The merchants and weavers of Lucca, Venice and Florence, Italy controlled the silk trade and spectacularly developed silk weaving from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century during the Renaissance Period. Cultural developments and political strength were expressed in the beauty of evolving designs and new steps in the development of weaving. Italy still maintains a strong silk production today.

In Tours, France during the mid 1400’s, a self-made merchant prince, Jacques Coeur who eventually became the Minister of Finance, became discontent with merely importing silk fabrics and forged a partnership with Florence, Italy which marked the beginning of independent silk production in France. Fashion, the sustaining force of French silks, drew silk weavers from Italy and the French silk industry was founded on Italian expertise. The early woven silks produced in France had strong resemblances to that of the Italy, however in time, France began to produce their own distinctive weaves and patterns. Notably, the ‘Gros de Tours”--a strong heavy taffeta with a double weft and an interesting raised surface texture--made famous the silks of Tours “soieries Tourangelles”.

French silk
French silk with distinctive weaves and patterns
European silk weaving
European silk weaving

Many Western European countries attempted during the past several centuries to produce silk by developing silk weaving, and despite climate constraints, have attempted sericulture. The attraction and power and economics of silk are such that at one time or another in history these countries desired to strengthen their trade exports of this valuable textile. Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Russia, Ireland, Germany and England and more have all been part of the excitement of the silk industry and at present, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom currently maintain production, with Italy being a producer on a world-scale market, behind China and India.

The history of silk has evolved with stories of discovery, artisanship, skill, travel, trade, religious and political meaning. Its influence, both past and present, suggest that this textile has been valued and treasured by many for thousands of years as an object of elegance and luxury and currency. Silk has been a valuable commodity and continues to sustain us culturally and economically on many levels.

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