The History of Silk

The production of silk is a story of mystery, greed and intrigue. From the secret origins of silk to its meteoric rise as the luxury good of choice among history's rich and powerful, this fabric produced from the cocoons of a worm carries with it a story unmatched among any other textile.

Ancient Origins

Many examples of silk manufacturing can be found when examining the historical record and artifacts collected from archaeological sites. To date the earliest evidence of silk manufacturing is a preserved silk cocoon dated to between 4000 and 3000 BCE that was discovered cut cleanly in half by a sharp instrument. Further investigation revealed the cocoon to belong to the what is now known as the domesticated silk worm. Additional evidence of early silk production and culture have been found in the form of silk looms dating back to 4000 BCE and pieces of woven silk itself.

Westward Expansion

In the early days the use and wear of silk was strictly regulated within China, relegating it to use by the royal family and select dignitaries. As time went by, however, the royal grip on silk loosened considerably and by roughly the 2nd century CE the “silk road” west was established and China began exporting silk to westward countries. Notably the Greeks, Persians and Romans.

The Secrets are Revealed

It was not until the year 300 CE that China lost its intellectual monopoly on silk when a Japanese team was able to successfully steal a parcel of silk worm eggs as well as 4 young Chinese girls skilled in the production techniques of silk cloth. Once the proverbial cat was out of the bag Chinese diplomats began the trade of enhanced production techniques as part of their diplomatic arsenal.

Even with the early spread of silk to Japan it was not until 552 CE that Byzantine emperor Justinian was able to smuggle silk worm eggs out of the asian region and begin the western production of silk.

Historical Manufacturing Process

According to legend the manufacturing process for silk was discovered when a silk worm's cocoon fell into a cup of empress Leizu's hot tea. The young empress attempted to remove the cocoon from the hot liquid with a pair of chopsticks and in the process of doing so began unraveling the cocoon into its component silk thread.

Weather or not the above legend holds true the ancient process of manufacturing silk mirrors the legend closely. Cocoons were boiled in hot water to loosen the threads, unraveled by hand, dyed then hand woven into cloth.

Modern Manufacturing Processes

In many ways the modern manufacturing process for silk cloth closely resembles the ancient practice, with the difference being the scale of equipment used. Rather than workers stirring vats of boiling water laced with cocoons, machines make the process automatic. Similarly mechanical looms are used to weave the silk at amazingly fast speeds. These speed and scale optimizations have driven down the cost of silk in modern times and thus have made it accessible to nearly everyone. Today silk is used on a wide range of garments, including neckties and bow ties, home décor, and more.

It should be noted, however, that the highest grades (and thus most expensive) of silk are still produced in small batches by hand from beginning to end.

Other Suggested Readings:

The History of the Tie – Read why men wear ties today. A complete history of the necktie.

How to Clean a Silk – Several tips and tricks on how to remove stains on silk fabric.

Guide to Proper Tie Storage – How a necktie should be stored at home and on travel.