Silk’s history dates back thousands of years. China is home to the Mulberry silkworm, and it is ancient China where the arts of silk farming and silk weaving were first discovered. The humble silk fabric would go on to influence the history of not just China, but also many other parts of the world.
From the Roman Empire’s emperors to Ancient Egyptian pharaohs: silk has long been treasured around the world. Find out what the fairy-tale-like story is behind silk’s invention, how silk influenced the founding of the legendary Silk Road, and how the art of silk making spread all over the world.
Where was silk invented?
The Chinese Empress Who Accidentally Discovered Silk
Legend says that silk was discovered around 2700 BC in ancient China. The story of the discovery of silk is recorded in writing by Confucius, one of China’s most famous philosophers and politicians. According to his tale, the Chinese Empress Leizu (also known as Xi Ling Shi) discovered silk by accident when a silkworm cocoon dropped into her cup of tea. Hot water softens the silk fiber that the silkworm cocoon is made of, and thus the cocoon began to lose its cohesiveness. When Leizu lifted the cocoon from her teacup, the end of the silk thread was loosened, and the cocoon began to unravel. Leizu noticed that the cocoon was made out of a single long strand of silk, and she had the innovative idea of weaving this fine thread into a piece of fabric.
Empress Leizu shared her discovery with her husband, the Yellow Emperor Huangdi, who encouraged her to observe the life of a silkworm. Domesticated silkworms, also called Bombyx Mori in Latin, are a species native to China. You could find silkworms in Mulberry trees, as Mulberry leaves are their primary source of food. Leizu persuaded her husband to gift her a grove of Mulberry trees to farm silkworms in. She learned a lot by studying silkworms and Mulberry trees around her and eventually started to teach her attendants how to raise silkworms. Empress Leizu was also said to have invented the silk reel, a device used to spin the silk fibers from multiple cocoons together into one thread, and the silk loom, a tool used to weave silk.
The invention of silk in ancient China by Empress Leizu was said to be the start of sericulture. Sericulture is the process of farming silkworms to create silk fabrics, which became a very profitable industry in China. Empress Leizu and her attendants were the first ones to practice silkworm farming, and the process remained restricted to women for a long time. They were responsible for everything from raising the silkworms to harvesting the silk fibers from the cocoons and weaving these fibers into silk fabrics.
Whether the legend of the cocoon dropping into the Empress’ teacup is true or not, Leizu’s alleged discovery lead her to be crowned as Goddess of the Silkworm and Sericulture in Chinese mythology. She is also often nicknamed ‘Silkworm Mother’. You can still find altars dedicated to her deity across China, for example, in Beijing’s Beihai Park.
Archeological Evidence of Silk’s Origins
While we have no solid evidence of the truth of the fairytale-like story of silk’s discovery, archeologists did confirm that silk and sericulture were indeed first found in ancient China. While Empress Leizu was the person to popularize silk, silk fabrics were found dating back hundreds of years before her alleged discovery of silk.
The first silk cocoon that was tampered with by humankind was found in Northern China in the Shanxi province. Here archeologists uncovered a silkworm cocoon that was cut in half using a knife. While the exact age of this cocoon is unknown, it is believed to be from the period between 4000 and 3000 BC. To this day, 95% of the silk produced in the world is still derived from the same species of silkworm that made the cocoon found in Shanxi. However, now the Bombyx Mori silkworm no longer lives in the wild. The species has become completely domesticated after thousands of years of silk farming.
The first woven silk cloth was also found in China and dates back to the year 3630 BC. The silk fabric was used to wrap the body of a child. As silk is one of the strongest fibers found in nature, it is durable and quite easily preserved. Because of its properties, archaeologists have been able to uncover scraps of silk from thousands of years ago.
Other than actual fragments of silk, archeologists in China have also found written references to silk, as well as objects adorned with images of silk. This includes an ivory cup with carvings of a silkworm design, dating back between 6000 and 7000 years.
The First Uses of Silk
It was not long after the discovery of silk that the fabric became a status symbol. The creation of silk fabrics requires a lot of labor and resources, so silk was precious and valuable. At first, only the Emperor, his close family, and high ranking military officials were allowed to wear silk garments. However, these rules were later relaxed during the Qing Dynasty. After the Qing Dynasty, anyone was allowed to wear silk clothing, from royalty to peasants. However, in reality, you were unlikely to see most people of society’s lower classes wearing silk, as it remained a costly fabric.
Silk was so valuable in ancient China that for a while, it was even used as a currency. During the Han dynasty, government employees were paid their salaries in silk, and farmers had to pay their taxes in grain and silk. Monks who broke their monastery’s rules even had to pay their fines in silk. At the time, the price of something could be described in the lengths of silk as a unit of measurement. The Emperor and Chinese government officials also used silk as diplomatic gifts in foreign relations, as foreign countries also saw the value of silk.
Because silk is one of nature’s strongest natural fibers, it was deemed useful for many things other than fabric making. Silk was also used for strings of musical instruments and bows, as well as fishing lines. Silk cloth was even used as paper before the Chinese invented and spread the paper we know today.
How Silk Spread from China to the World
The beauty of China’s silk did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world. Although other countries did not yet know how to produce silk fabrics, archeologists were able to uncover silk in the burial grounds of several old civilizations. This is thanks to China’s trade activities. These civilizations include ancient Egypt, Persia, and the Greek and Roman empires. China already traded with some foreign countries before the founding of The Silk Route, but it was in the period after when silk really took the world by storm.
Silk and Its Role in The Silk Route
The Silk Road was once the longest and most flourishing trade route in the world. The strong interest other countries showed in China’s silk was one of the contributing causes to the opening of The Silk Road some 200 years AD. China was once isolated from the West by some of the world’s toughest mountain and desert landscapes. Until the founding of The Silk Road. The Silk Road was born when the Han government sent one of their generals West of China to establish trade relationships with foreign states. The road stretched over 6,000 kilometers, all the way from Eastern China to the Mediterranean Sea.
At the time, silk was one of the most valuable goods China had to offer. It was even considered to be more expensive than gold. Silk was seen as a luxurious good, thanks to its shimmer, lasting quality, and beautiful drape. As a result, lots of silk was traded or gifted in return for foreign products. As so much silk passed over this extraordinary trading route, it was later aptly named The Silk Route.
While silk was one of China’s most important trade goods, it was not the only one. China also had other valuable goods to offer the world, such as tea and paper. In return, they received gold, silver, horses, jewels, and much more.
The Silk Route continued to contribute to the development of many major ancient societies until sea trade became more popular in the late Middle Ages. At this point, many countries had already learned how to produce their own silk.
The Spread of Silk Farming
Silk-Making in the Middle East
For thousands of years, China managed to keep a monopoly on silk production. The Mulberry silkworm is native to China, and parts of China also have a favorable climate for growing Mulberry trees. These two natural resources, along with the knowledge of sericulture, were needed to produce silk. The Chinese were serious about keeping their monopoly on silk making. They even enforced a ban on the transport of silkworms and their eggs to other countries. Anyone who disobeyed this ban could be faced with the death penalty.
It was not until much later that the secrets of silk production left China. It is said that the Byzantine emperor hired monks to smuggle silkworm eggs out of China in 500 AD. These monks supposedly smuggled the eggs in their hollow bamboo walking canes, all the way from China to Constantinople. The monks were also said to bring along knowledge of sericulture. This was the first time a country other than China had access to silkworms and learned how to make silk fabrics. It is also likely that sericulture was spread by Chinese migrants who made a living of silk-making abroad.
Just like the Chinese, the Byzantines aimed to keep a monopoly on silk production after learning this precious art. With a monopoly, they were able to maximize their profits when trading silk. The Persians developed their own patterns and designs when weaving silk. However, it was said that Chinese silk was still superior in quality when compared to Byzantian silk. Thanks to its superior quality, Chinese silk remained popular despite the appearance of some healthy competition. After hundreds of years around 630 AD, the Byzantines lost their monopoly on sericulture in their region. This was when the Arabs conquered Persia, where they discovered how to make silk.
Silk-Making in Europe
It took a while for other countries in the West to discover sericulture. It was not until the High Middle Ages that Andalusia in Spain and Venice in Italy took the lead in Europe’s silk-making scene. During this time, around the year 1100, travelers from Constantinople set up their silk-making business in Italy. Today the Como region in Italy is still renowned for its silk-making.
Before silk-making became widespread in what is now known as Europe, its residents obtained silk by trading with China through the Silk Route. The ancient civilization of Rome loved wearing silk garments, and silk fashion was especially popular among society’s rich and politically powerful.
Silk-Making in East Asia
Back in East Asia, the Japanese also managed to obtain silkworm eggs and to learn the art of silk farming around 300 AD. It is said they brought over the eggs from China, along with several women skilled in sericulture. Silk became very popular in Japan as one of the main fabrics used in the making of kimonos. The kimono is a traditional garment in Japan, which was commonly worn on a day to day basis at the time. Silk lent itself well to kimono making, as it was easily dyed, and it gave the garments a luxurious shimmering appearance. Japan would later become one of the world’s largest silk producers, after China.
Silk surely has a fascinating history, filled with fantastical tales. It remains one of the world’s oldest natural fabrics. To this day, silk clothing, scarves, and even bedding remain incredibly popular. Silk has also managed to maintain its reputation as a luxurious fabric. Even in this modern age, silk remains one of the strongest and most longlasting fabrics.
Other than a few technological advances to speed up the production process, silk today is still roughly produced the same way as it was thousands of years ago. After millennia of experience in silk-making, China remains the largest producer of silk in the world, with an output of 150,000 metric tons of silk a year. Next time you wear something made of silk, take a moment to think about the fabric’s impressive millennia-old history.