Silk, one of the oldest fibers known to man, originated in China. The history of silk is both enchanting and illustrious.
According to the Chinese legend, the Empress Hsi Ling Shi, wife of the Yellow Emperor, was the first person to discover silk as wearable fiber by accident. One day, the empress was drinking some tea under a Mulberry tree, when a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. The empress felt in love with the shimmering threads, so after investigating, she discovered their source. The empress soon developed the cultivation of silkworms and invented the reel and loom. That is how the history of silk began.
Whether or not the legend is accurate, it is certain that the earliest surviving references to silk history and production are from China and that for nearly 3 millennia, the Chinese had a global monopoly on silk production.
A well kept secret
The Chinese realized the value of the beautiful material they were producing and kept its secret safe from the rest of the world for more than 30 centuries. Travelers were searched thoroughly at border crossings and anyone caught trying to smuggle eggs, cocoons or silkworms out of the country were summarily executed. Thus, under the penalty of death, the mystery of sericulture remained a well-kept secret for almost three thousand years.
The Silk Road
Silk spread exponentially through Chinese culture geographically and socially. From there, silken garments began to reach regions all over Asia. Silk rapidly became a luxury fabric to Chinese merchants, due to texture and luster.
The demand for this exotic fabric eventually created the Silk Road, taking silk westward and bringing gold, silver and wools to the East. It was named the Silk Road after its most valuable commodity. That’s why silk was considered even more precious than gold.
The Silk Road was some 4,000 miles long, from Eastern China to the Mediterranean Sea. The Silk Road followed the Great Wall of China to the north-west, bypassing the Takla Makan desert, climbing the Pamir mountain range, crossing modern-day Afghanistan and going on to the Levant, with a major trading market in Damascus.
Sericulture Spreads into Asia and Europe
The Chinese had a monopoly on the world's silk production until about BC 200 when Korea saw the emergence of its own silk industry thanks to a handful of Chinese immigrants who had settled there. By about AC 300, sericulture had spread into India, Japan, and Persia – thus making silk also a part of the history of these cultures.
The Roman Empire knew about silk trade. Despite its popularity, however, the secret of silk-making was only to reach Europe around AC 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.
The 19th century and industrialization saw the downfall of the European silk industry. Cheaper Japanese silk, especially driven by the opening of the Suez Canal, was one of the many factors driving the trend. Additionally, advent of manmade fiber, such as nylon, started to dominate traditionally silk products such as stockings and parachutes. The two world wars, which interrupted the supply of raw material from Japan, also stifled the European silk industry.
After the Second World War, Japan's silk production was restored, with improved production and quality of raw silk. Japan was to remain the world's biggest producer of raw silk, and practically the only major exporter of raw silk, until the 1970s.
China gradually re-captured her position as the world's biggest producer and exporter of raw silk and silk yarn – proving that the history of silk follows its own boomerang principles. Today, around 125,000 metric tons of silk is produced in the world. Almost two thirds of that production takes place in China.
The other major producers are India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and Brazil. United States is by far the largest importer of silk products today.