The Chinese had a monopoly on the world's silk production until about BCE 200 when Korea saw the emergence of its own silk industry thanks to a handful of Chinese immigrants who had settled there. By about CE 300, sericulture had spread into India, Japan, and Persia – thus making silk a part of the history of these cultures.Continue Reading
The Roman Empire knew about silk trade. Despite its popularity, however, the secret of silk-making was only to reach Europe around CE 550, via the Byzantine Empire. According to a legend well enshrined in silk history, monks working for the emperor Justinian smuggled silkworm eggs to Constantinople in hollow bamboo walking canes. The Byzantines were as secretive as the Chinese, and for many centuries the weaving and trading of silk fabric was a strict imperial monopoly.
In the seventh century, the Arabs conquered Persia, capturing their magnificent silks in the process. Sericulture and silk weaving thus spread through Africa, Sicily, and Spain as the Arabs swept through these lands. Andalusia was Europe's main silk-producing center in the tenth century.
By the 13th century, however, Italy had gained dominance and entered the hall of fame in silk history. Venetian merchants traded extensively in silk and encouraged silk growers to settle in Italy. By the 13th century, Italian silk was a significant source of trade. Even now, silk processed (finished, dyed, printed) in the province of Como enjoys an esteemed reputation.
Italian silk was so popular in Europe that Francis I of France invited Italian silk makers to France to create a French silk industry, especially in Lyon. By the 17th century France was challenging Italy's leadership, and the silk looms established in the Lyons area at that time are still famous today for the unique beauty of their weaving.
In Medieval Europe, silk was used only by the nobility.