Silk. For centuries, people crossed deserts and scaled mountains to trade it. Opposing powers fought to control it. Traditionally used to make cheongsams, now we also buy it in the form of pyjamas, scarves and bath robes.
In modern times, silk has become synonymous with all things pleasing: soft sheets, chocolate mousse, smooth skin. The word itself promises unparalleled comfort and indulgence. But how did silk become so widely attainable, while still maintaining its luxury status and aspirational price tag?
The story of silk is one that dates back a long way. According to Chinese myth, silk was discovered by Chinese Empress Leizu about 5,000 years ago. Legend has it that the empress – wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor – was having tea under a mulberry tree one day when a silkworm cocoon dropped into her tea cup.
According to an account in the book Middlesex: “When (the empress) tried to remove it, she noticed that the cocoon had begun to unravel in the hot liquid. She handed the loose end to her maidservant and told her to walk. The servant went out of the (empress’s) chamber, and into the palace courtyard, and through the palace gates, and out of the Forbidden City, and into the countryside a half mile away before the cocoon ran out.”
While the tale of Leizu is rather charming, new scientific findings actually suggest that silk was discovered much earlier. Last January, scientists unearthed the earliest evidence of silk production to date – silk fibres contained in soil samples that had been excavated from tombs dating back 8,500 years in Jiahu, central China. Researchers suggested that people may have been buried in silk garments during that time. Shrouded in mystery, silk remained one of China’s best-kept secrets for centuries.
While there are several varieties of silkworm throughout the world, the Bombyx mori species is the most widely used. Starting out as a blind moth that cannot fly, it lays about 500 eggs in less than a week, and dies shortly thereafter. After emerging from the eggs, the larvae – or caterpillars known as silkworms – feed on mulberry leaves. Then, after moulting several times, the silkworm excretes a fluid from its salivary glands, which forms a long thread that is hardened by a gum called sericin. It then spins the thread and encloses itself inside its cocoon for a few days.
To acquire the raw material, the cocoons are boiled in water during the ‘degumming process’ and the silkworms are killed, save for an important few that are kept alive by silk producers to propagate the species. The silk fibres are then unravelled and wound onto reels. It takes about 3,000 silkworms to produce just one pound of raw silk. Hence the Chinese proverb: “With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”
In modern times, silk has courted controversy. Some animal rights organisations, like PETA, take issue with the number of silkworms sacrificed to produce silk. Thus, ‘peace silk’ emerged as a substitute – the manufacture of which does not involve the death of the silkworm. This, however, is a fairly new trend. Silk Road traders and, for that matter, the Chinese emperors who at one time forbade everyone else from wearing silk, were unlikely to have been too concerned about the dying wishes of the silkworm.
China’s early rulers reportedly wore white silk robes inside the palace, and yellow robes – the colour of the earth – outdoors. Eventually, silk trickled down to the higher classes of Chinese society and was fashioned into clothing and decorations. Through time, silk found a number of other applications. It was used in the production of musical instruments, fishing lines, bowstrings and a luxurious type of paper. It later became a valuable form of currency in its own right, and – along with bronze coins and grain – was traded for other goods.
Myths abound as to how China’s silk-spinning secrets spread beyond its imperial borders to Central Asia. One tale has it that around 500AD a Chinese princess married the King of Khotan (now present-day Xinjiang, northwest China), who told her that if she wanted to continue wearing silk dresses, she had to bring him some mulberry tree seeds and silk worms. So she smuggled them in her enormous headdress.
Regardless of the veracity of the tale, historical evidence has revealed that the Silk Road, a trade route that emerged during the Han Dynasty around 200BC, was the main factor contributing to the spread of silk. The term ‘Silk Road’ was coined in 1877 by a German geographer who worked in China and created an atlas depicting a “relatively straight and well-travelled” route from China to Europe. However, contrary to popular belief, the Silk Road was not a single, unified road at all.
According to historian and author Valerie Hanson: “The ‘road’ was not an actual road but a stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains. In fact, the quantity of cargo transported along these treacherous routes was small.”
The goods transported and traded along the now-famed route were not just limited to silk either. They also included spices, leather goods, metals, glass and other materials. The route began in Xi’an, China, and snaked westward through the 1,000-kilometre Gansu Corridor – wedged between the Qinghai Mountains and the Gobi Desert. After reaching Dunhuang in Gansu Province, traders could take one of three routes, one of which ran right through the desert. Then it was onward to the western borders of imperial China and further beyond to Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.
Few traders actually traversed the entire route. Instead, it was much easier to have middle-men placed along the route, and the goods typically changed hands several times before ending up at their final destination. Silk found its way into the Roman Empire around 115BC, and even Julius Caesar was said to have owned silk curtains.
While China has more or less maintained its monopoly on the silk trade for thousands of years (at times, it fell behind Japan and other powers), the empire could not stop others from cultivating their own silk. The practice spread to Korea in 200BC, then to Japan, India, the Byzantine Empire and on to the Middle East. The Crusades brought silk to Western Europe, particularly Italy, which profited from the trade boom and also become the fashion capital that it still is today. After the invention of the spinning wheel and the Industrial Revolution in Europe, the rest, as they say, was history. Cotton eventually became cheaper to produce than silk, followed by other materials like nylon, which cemented silk’s status as a rare luxury good.
For evidence of that fact, look no further than the array of high-end silk products currently on the market. A king-sized silk bed cover by Frette, for example, will set you back US$2,200 (HK$17,300). The Italian brand makes some of the world’s most expensive linens, which have been supplied to luxury hotels around the world, including the Ritz in Paris, the Danieli in Venice and the Peninsula in Hong Kong. The aforementioned silk bed cover displays a chromatic effect produced by yarn-dyed mixed silk jacquard, a process that colours each individual thread, giving the cover a lavishly luminous look.
Silk bathrobes can be even more expensive. Designer Tom Ford’s silk bathrobes – which are often limited editions – carry a price tag of US$4,000 to $6,000. They have been featured in a number of TV shows such as the vampire fantasy-horror True Blood as well as the James Bond films. Not to be outdone, a purple paisley bathrobe previously released by Italian designer Stefano Ricci – made of 100 percent silk and lined with cashmere – was priced at $5,415. But nothing compares to the price tag on antique Chinese robes. Silk robes from the Qing Dynasty can cost up to $10,000, while ones from the 17th century often cost up to $20,000.
While silk has a reputation for being soft and delicate, the fibres that constitute the material are surprisingly strong and durable. This makes it useful in a number of more industrial products, such as electronic insulation coils, suture materials for medical use, military-grade parachutes and artillery gunpowder bags, tires and even prosthetic arteries.
China is once again the leading producer of silk at 146,000 metric tonnes per year. Along with the second largest producer, India, the two countries produce more than 60 percent of the world’s annual silk supply.
So what’s next for silk? Scientists recently made a breakthrough by inventing a method to produce artificial spider silk that is both biodegradable and as strong as steel. The spinning process mimics the way that spiders produce the fibres naturally.
“In the future, this may allow industrial production of artificial spider silk for biomaterial applications or for the manufacture of advanced textiles,” said Dr Anna Rising, a member of the team of Swedish researchers developing the new method.
The continued mechanisation of silk production could render the good old silkworm obsolete – but that remains to be seen. For now, silk is very much part and parcel of the luxury industry, whether it be high fashion or five-star hotels. After all, if silk is fit for an emperor, it’s a material most definitely worth flaunting.
Text: Emily Petsko