The Chinese have used silk since the 27th century B.C though domesticated silk worms.
Legend is that Chinese Empress Hsi Ling Shi, wife of Emperor Huang Ti (also called the Yellow Emperor), was the first person to accidentally discover silk as weavable fibre. Silk was originally reserved for the Emperors of China for their use and as gifts to others; it was considered more valuable than gold. The Chinese Emperors tried to keep the knowledge of how to make silk secret, even resorting to executing anyone caught smuggling eggs, cocoons or silkworms out of the country. However eventually the secret got out, firstly to Korea with the spread of Chinese immigrants.
There is another legend that some Christian monks smuggled silkworm eggs out of China in hollow bamboo walking canes for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.
Farm women fed the worms mulberry leaves and then unwound the cocoons to produce long strands of silk fibre. It’s use spread gradually eventually becoming a popular luxury fabric due to its texture and lustre. Silk was traded through India, the middle east to Europe and North Africa along the 4,000 mile Silk Road.
How It Is Made
Silk is a natural protein based fibre made from the cocoons of certain silkworm larvae. The best known type of silk is made from the cocoons of the reared larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx Mori. They are breed to produce a white coloured silk thread with no mineral on the surface.
If you are looking for an animal friendly fabric, then silk is not a good choice: the silkworm larvae are killed by dipping the cocoons into boiling water before the moths emerge or by piercing the cocoons with a needle. The cocoon is then unravelled as one continuous thread sometimes up to 600m. To produce 1kg of silk, 104kg of mulberry leaves must be eaten by 3000 silkworms.
According to Wikipedia India is the largest consumer of silk in the world due in part to the tradition of wearing silk saris for marriages and other auspicious ceremonies. The top five producers of silk cocoons are the People’s Republic of China, India, Uzbekistan, Brazil and Iran.
Properties of Silk
Many people love the feeling of silk; it is very comfortable to wear and has a smooth soft feel that is not slippery. It is cool to wear in the summer yet warm to wear in winter. It has a sheen and luminosity that is unmatched by many other materials.
It can absorb moisture, though it is less absorbent than wool. Unlike cotton and linen, it does lose strength (up to 20%) when wet. Just note that it is yellowed by perspiration. Due to it’s absorption rate, it can be easily dyed. Just be careful; don’t add bleach to it as it destroys the fabric.
It is the strongest natural fibre, with a high tensile strength. It is not easy to tear or damage the silk fibres. When sewing, you don’t need to worry about the fabric as much as the strength of your seams. It even retains its shape, even after having been stretched.
If you don’t want your clothes to cling, then silk may not be the right option; it is a poor conductor of electricity and thus may form static cling.
Be careful of how you store your silk products. It is susceptible to be attacked by insects, especially if dirty. It also has a poor resistance to sunlight exposure, and may experience fading.