History of Silk and Sericulture

History of sericulture goes back into the centuries. The secret of silk production belongs to the Chinese who had discovered it four thousand years ago. However, there are some scholars who push the dates of its discovery even a millennium further.

Silk has been famous and still is. So why are we all amazed by its beauty and how does it appear? And where does the “silk” come from?

According to a well-established Chinese legend, Empress Hsi Ling Shi, wife of Emperor Huang Ti (also called the Yellow Emperor), was the first person to accidentally discover silk as weavable fiber. Legend tells, that one day, when the empress was sipping tea under a mulberry tree, a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. The empress became so enamored with the shimmering threads, she discovered their source, the Bombyx mori silkworm found in the white mulberry. The empress soon developed sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom. Thus began the history of silk.

Whether the legend is true or not, it is certain that the earliest surviving references to silk history and production place it in China; and that for nearly three millennia, the Chinese had a global monopoly on silk production.

History of sericulture goes deep to the legendary times. It is also confirmed by archeology. During excavations in various regions of China, silkworms were found in cultural layers related to the 3rd millennium B.C. It seems that people were just collecting wild silkworm cocoons, and later started to cultivate them purposely. It is proved now that by the 5th century B.C. silkworm cocoons were cultivated in six provinces of Celestial Empire and the main center of sericulture was Hangzhou. Every spring, the Empress would open the season of silk works that lasted six months and were only for females.

It was initially only members of the Emperor family who could wear this rare fabric. Royal family would wear white silk clothing inside the palace and the preference to yellow was given at celebrations. However, as the production was growing, this fabric began to be available for courtiers, and later for those of ordinary rank. Later, this material was used for making lines, bow-strings, musical instruments strings and paper. During the Han dynasty (3rd century B.C.- 3rd century), silk became a general equivalent: peasants paid tax with silk, and the government paid to clerks in silk. The fabric became so simple that the element with the meaning of “silk” was included into the combination of 230 hieroglyphs of Mandarin dialect of the Chinese language.

Silk existed in the ancient Mediterranean as well. Already in the 4th century B.C., Aristotle wrote in his “History of animals” of fabrics production from silkworms on the island of Kos, though the quality was less than ideal.

It was in the 2nd century B.C. when the path we call today Great Silk Road was set up between China and Europe, that lasted around one and half thousand years. Caravans of 5-10km delivered various goods from East to West, but it was the Chinese silk that gave its name to the most famous trade routes of the ancient times.

In the beginning of the new era, the fashion on silk flowed from the Celestial to Roman Empire. A kilo of valuable fabric of silk equaled to a kilo of gold. Passion to silk slowly moved to barbarians and in 408 goths of Alaric sieged Rome and asked 4000 silken tunics for its freedom.

German tribes called this soft and smooth fabric “gutawabi” and this word was borrowed in the old Slavic. The origin of the Slavic word “silk” (шелк) is rather mysterious. Across the entire Silk Road this fabric was called “serk” and “serik” and no one knows where do the Balto-Slavic languages had taken “l” in the naming. (English word “silk” was taken from Slavic). However, let us leave this to etymologists to continue the discussion.

The secret of making silk was kept as a great state secret of China. Its disclosure would inflict death penalty. However, it was impossible to keep it secret while continuing its mass production. It could not last long. Around 200 B.C. they started producing silk in Korea, then India and Japan, though further countries did not even hear about mulberry silkworms. In year 70, scientist Pliny the Elder wrote: “Silk was collected after combing off down from the leaves after soaking in water’. Isn’t this a triumph of disinformation!

The secret of the Chinese was revealed in 552 when a Christian monk came to a Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, and said to have been to the Celestial Empire. He told that the silk thread is produced from special worms, that would be difficult, and even impossible to transport across the entire Asia, but would worth attempting to bring their eggs to the West. The Emperor funded his expedition. Monks managed to steal the eggs of the silkworm hiding them in their bamboo canes. This is obviously one of the most ancient stories of an industrial espionage.

In Byzantium they had placed the eggs in a warm manure and cultivated new worms and fed them with mulberry leaves. This way, the Greeks learnt how to produce their own silk. The method was kept secretive; silk was produced only in state workshops. This industry had arrived in the West Europe relatively late, in the 13th century, when many Greek masters were transported from Constantinople to Italy.

The quality of Chinese silk remained superb for a long time. Silkworm bombyx mori that produces thread thinner and more round than all other kinds of this worm probably feels better in the Celestial Empire. Surely, perseverance takes its own, and China had to give the palm of supremacy to France in the 16th century.

For nearly 3 millennia, the Chinese had a global monopoly on silk production. China had a gradual downfall in silk production industry: it was Japan who received the 1st place in silk export in the 19th century. China re-captured its position later on. Today, around 125,000 metric tons of silk is produced in the world. Almost two thirds of that production takes place in China.