For the past quarter century or so, products exported from China have developed a reputation for being cheap in both quality and cost. While this reputation is unfortunately fact-based, there is one area where the Chinese have historically been the most dominant in quality: silk production. The fabric continues to enjoy a special status within China and around the world as it has been heavily intertwined with Chinese history, culture, and commerce.
China continues to be the world's largest producer of silk, creating over 78% of the entire world's silk! It's safe to say that when it comes to silk the Chinese know a thing or two about production and quality. Below is a brief summary of its production, history, and relevance.
What is Silk?
Silk is a delicately woven product made from the protein fibers of the silkworm cocoon. Producing it is a lengthy process that requires close monitoring. Silk moths lay around 500 eggs during their lifespan. After the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are fed a diet of mulberry leaves in a controlled environment. Their body weight increases substantially. After storing up enough energy, the silkworms surround themselves with fibers of a white jelly-like substance. Their cocoons resemble white, yellow, pink, and brown furry balls.
After eight or nine days the silkworms, while in the process of cocooning, are killed. Their cocoons are lowered into hot water to loosen up the tight protective filaments. They are then unraveled, wound onto a spool, and later spun into thread. The cocoon filaments could be up to 900 meters long! Several filaments are then twisted together to make a thread and are woven into cloth.
How was this discovered?
Chinese Legend of the Discovery Silk
According to a Chinese legend referenced in the writings of Confucius, silk was discovered in 2640 BCE by Xi Lingshi, the young wife of the Emperor of China. It is said that she was drinking tea under a mulberry tree in the garden of the imperial palace when a cocoon fell from the tree into her hot tea. Wanting to remove it from her drink, she began to unroll the thread from the cocoon, and noticed the long, delicate thread that came from it. It is said that following this incident, the empress soon developed what is known as sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom.
Whether or not the legend is true, historians know that the earliest surviving references to silk history and production place it in China. For nearly three thousand years the Chinese had a global monopoly on silk production.
The Silk Road
Although silk was first reserved for Chinese royalty, it eventually spread to other parts of society and thus began to be traded. Silk garments began to reach regions throughout Asia as it rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants because of its texture and luster.
Demand for this fabric in the region eventually created the lucrative trade route known as the Silk Road. The Silk Road was around 6,500 kilometres long, stretching from Eastern China all the way to the Mediterranean Sea! The most notable person to travel this entire route was Venetian explorer Marco Polo. It is said to have taken him 24 years to return back to Venice after his initial departure sometime in the 13th century.
The Silk Secret
It is thought that silk was exported along the Silk Road by about 400 BCE or so, and after this, though silk became highly esteemed, the various kingdoms and imperial dynasties kept secret the methods of silk production for another one thousand years. It might have been one of the most zealously guarded secrets in history as anyone that was found smuggling silkworm eggs, cocoons, or mulberry seeds was executed.
Sericulture Spreads West
With the mulberry silk moth native to China, the Chinese had a monopoly on the world's silk production until about BCE 200 when Korea saw the emergence of its own silk industry thanks to a handful of Chinese immigrants who had settled there. By about 300 CE, sericulture had spread into India, Japan, and Persia – thus making silk a part of the history of these cultures as well. The secret of silk-making was only to reach Europe around 550 CE, 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.
However, by the 13th century, Italian city-states began to dominate the silk industry. Venetian merchants traded extensively in silk and encouraged silk growers to settle in their territories. It is no surprise that Italian silk became a significant source of trade.
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. Additionally, the advent of man-made fiber, such as nylon, started to dominate traditionally silk products such as stockings and parachutes. The two world wars, which interrupted the supply of raw material from Japan, also stifled the European silk industry.
After the Second World War, Japan's silk production was restored, with improved production and quality of raw silk. Japan was to remain the world's biggest producer of raw silk, and practically the only major exporter of raw silk, until the 1970s.
China gradually re-captured its position as the world's biggest producer and exporter of high quality raw silk and silk yarn. Today, China produces about 150,000 metric tons of silk each year - more than the rest of the world combined!
TexereSilk. History of Silk. Retrieved from: https://texeresilk.com/article/history_of_silk
China Highlights. (2018, January 23). Chinese Silk — Silk History, Production, and Products. Retrieved from: https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/culture/chinese-silk.htm