The History of Silk

SIlk has been used for thousands of years by people all over the world for a wide variety of things. Before it becomes the delicate and soft silk bedding you adore, silk, in its purest form, is a natural protein fibre produced by silkworms. In this blog, we’re going to break down the intriguing history and the secrets behind the production of one of the most luxurious textiles available.

Keep on reading to learn more!

History of Silk

The history of silk can be traced back to ancient China. According to legends spun by Confucius himself, silk production was spearheaded by the Goddess of Silk, Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the mythological Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, who ruled China around 27000 to 3000 BC. The inspiration came to her while indulging in a cup of tea in the beautiful imperial gardens.

A cocoon fell into her cup from the mulberry tree. Out of curiosity, she picked it up, unravelled it, and discovered that it was like a spool of fine and soft thread. She began the earliest efforts for silk production or sericulture by ordering to have mulberry forests planted for the silkworms to feed on. She also invented the loom and taught her people about the art of weaving, which transformed the fibres from the cocoon into silk fabrics.

There is some sound historical evidence supporting the existence of silk and sericulture during this period. In 1927, a silkworm cocoon from around 2600 to 2300 BC was discovered by archeologists from the Yellow River in Shanxi Province, situated in the northern part of China. Furthermore, there were also archeological excavations of Neolithic tools for weaving and silk gauze unearthed in Hemudu and ribbons and scraps of silk in Qianshanyang, which are both in Zhejiang Province.

Sericulture, The Basics of
Silk Production

Otherwise known as silk farming, sericulture involves the two interconnected steps—mulberry propagation and silkworm cultivation—for the production of raw silk material. Silk can be created from an extensive array of indigenous species and varieties of the silk moth, depending on the country. This is why you may encounter fabrics or products made from different types of silk. There’s tasar or tussah silk, eri silk, muga silk, mussel silk, spider silk, and coan silk.

But the most common type of silk that accounts for 90 percent of silk production around the globe is the mulberry silk. Originating from China where it was also massively produced, mulberry silk is made solely from the Bombyx mori, a domestic silk moth species from the Bombycidae family, which was born and bred entirely for the purpose of commercial silk production. They are blind and flightless and are said to give an exquisite kind of silk filament that outshines that of other moths.

An adult Bombyx mori moth lays around 500 eggs in four (4) to six (6) days and eventually dies. This signals the first step of traditional silk production that has been used since the olden times in China. When these moth eggs hatch, they will become silkworms that will be constantly fed and fattened with freshly picked and chopped mulberry leaves. They are usually kept on a stack of trays, kept at a specific temperature, and sheltered from loud noises and pungent odours.

For a whole month, the silkworms will do nothing but eat until they decide that they have filled up their stores with sufficient energy for spinning a cocoon. This is indicated once they’ve released a jelly-like substance in their silk glands. For three (3) to four (4) days, the silkworms would spin and envelope themselves into fine white threads until they appear like thick, cotton-white balls.

Typically, there is a waiting period of eight to nine days before the process of silk harvesting is initiated. In the conventional practice, the cocoons will be exposed to a high temperature to steam or bake them, eventually killing the silkworms or the pupas inside. They will then be submerged into warm water to loosen the filaments woven into the cocoon, which when unravelled, can go up to 900 meters in length.

The silk filaments would then be dyed or woven or used in fine embroidery. In ancient China, women were in charge of the whole sericulture process, from tending to the silkworms, maintaining the optimal temperature, gathering and feeding them with mulberry leaves, silk harvesting, to weaving them using looms.

The Secrets of Silk

Silk beddings and other fine pieces made from silk were deemed a luxury. As a matter of fact, in China, wearing silk robes was a privilege granted only to the Emperor and the highest of ranks.

During those times, silk was regarded as the country’s most sought-after product that people were willing to shell out an insane amount of wealth for, so they were secretive about their knowledge of sericulture and weaving in order to monopolize silk production from other countries.

Silk, in the form of a thread or woven silk beddings and fabrics, was a valuable commodity that made their economy flourish. Along with other goods (such as gunpowder, precious stones, rare spices, medicine, and slaves), China traded imported silk to Korea, Japan, India and further West to Persia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The aptly named Silk Road, or Sichou Zhi Lu, refers to the routes that connect China to the Middle East by land taken by camel caravans of merchants.

They have managed to conceal the wonders of silk from the people outside China for 1000 years until two monks from the Byzantine Empire deviously smuggled silkworm eggs out of the borders. Sericulture also reached Korea in 200 AD and in Japan 300 AD when Chinese people started to migrate. By 520 AD, silk production had been established in India, as well as in European and Arab countries.

Modern Silk Production

At SmartSilk™, we are proud to say that the silk filaments used for our silk beddings and other products are sustainably and ethically sourced and harvested. We only use the cocoons naturally discarded by the silkworms once they’ve completed metamorphosis and have grown into mature moths. We do not kill or harm insects or disrupt nature’s beautiful cycle.

SmartSilk™ is made of Tussah silk, also known by its Sanskrit name “Kosa Silk.” It is produced by the Tasar silkworms from various species from the Antheraea, Mylitta, Proylei, Pernyi, and Yamamai family, which can be found in China, India, and Japan. Tasar silk has a lovely texture and a characteristically natural deep golden colour, except for the Japanese Tasar silkworm, which spins green silk filaments.

Unlike other silkworms that are fattened with mulberry leaves, Tasar silkworms from India grow in wild forests and breed on local trees, such as Sal, Arjun and Saja. Hence, they are called wild silk and “Ahimsa Silk” because this special silk is considered non-violent silk. Tussah silk is hailed as the strongest strand of silk. Its temperature regulation and wicking properties are also proven to get better with each wash. All these standout qualities make a Tussah silk an excellent raw material for fashionable silk clothing and comfortable silk beddings.

Check out SmartSilk™ Benefits for more information about what makes our wonderfully cozy silk beddings a great investment. To get in touch with a member of our team, contact SmartSilk™ today!