The other night I couldn’t sleep and started thinking about silk.

  1. Sericulture is incredibly old and incredibly complicated. Temperature and timing are important during each stage of the process. How did domestication occur? Bombyx mori, which can’t survive in the wild, take place? Legend says that the empress Xi Lingshi was the first to discover silk. A cocoon had fallen from a mulberry under which she drank tea, and it unraveled when the liquid heated up. The story has the simplified quality of myth, but tea is also just the right temperature for dissolving the gum that holds silk cocoons together—warm but not boiling. Maybe there’s some truth to the story.
  2. In China, sericulture and silk weaving were women’s work. Were we to assume, then, that all the innovations required to develop this culturally important and economically significant industry are attributable solely to women who were forgotten? It’s pretty safe to assume that the spindle wheel—the first belt drive—was.
  3. Silk has been traded over extremely long distances since a very, very long time. The hair of a 3,00-year-old Egyptian Mummy was found to contain silk strands. Silk was valued by ancient Greeks and Romans, but they believed that it came from plants. Pliny, the elder, knew that it was made by moths. However he thought they wove like spiders.
  4. China had a monopoly over sericulture, but it eventually spread from Korea to Japan. Around 550 CE, it reached Byzantium. According to the story, two monks brought silkworm eggs from China out in bamboo canes. In the 12th century, Sicily was the first place in Western Europe to cultivate silk.
  5. There were numerous attempts to establish sericulture in what is now America, but none of them succeeded.
  6. In the 16th and the 17th centuries, Huguenots fled to England. This led to a large influx of silk weavers in London’s Spitalfields district.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Utagawa Yushitora (1872) Imported Silk Reeling Machine by Tsukiji at Tokyo.
  1. Japan’s silk industry was critical to its industrialization once it emerged from isolation in the mid-19th century. Japan imported European reeling technologies and equipment, and exported improved silkworm hybrids. (I talk about this a little bit in The Fabric of Civilization.) This 19th century print shows a silk reeling factory where many Japanese women worked. This employment affected what? Alice Evans calls the “great gender divergence”? How does women’s role in sericulture and silk factories fit into her theories? She has written a bit about it here.)
  2. A century before the Industrial Revolution, silk production was the first 24/7 large-scale factory. (I go into detail about this in The Fabric of Civilization.)
  3. Silkworm disease was the very first illness to be associated with a microorganism. It proved empirically the germ theory. Louis Pasteur studied the diseases of silkworms a few decades later. Also discussed in The Fabric of Civilization.)
  4. Silk, unlike cotton or linen and like wool, takes dye extremely well.
  5. Silk is the only bio-fiber that comes in long filaments, which do not need spinning. The cellulose-based synthetic fibers, such as nylon and polyester, were inspired by silk.
  6. Rayon was marketed under the name artificial silk. This led to problems that I’ve seen referred to in press accounts of Dupont’s decision to market nylon as a completely new fiber without reference to silk. But I don’t know what the problems were. False advertising charges? Consumer disappointment?) “Rayon” was a Dupont coinage to give the fiber more glamour than “viscose” while avoiding comparison to silk.
  7. Silk is becoming increasingly important for medical applications. Silk sutures have been used by surgeons for over 2,000 years. However, synthetic sutures are now largely replacing silk for this purpose. SilkLab research at Tufts University led to more medical applications of silk proteins in recent years. This includes a treatment for voice cord problems and scaffolds which are used in tissue repair. (I’ve commissioned a fascinating article on the SilkLab from Boston Globe The next issue of will feature a story by Hiawatha bray, a reporter for Work in Progress.)
  8. In the 19th century, silk fabric became a mass consumer product available to the middle class and a major draw in the era’s department stores. Émile Zola evocatively portrays department store displays of silk in The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames): “At first stood out the light satins and tender silks, the satins à la Reine and Renaissance, with the pearly tones of spring water; light silks, transparent as crystals—Nile-green, Indian-azure, May-rose, and Danube-blue. Then came the stronger fabrics: marvellous satins, duchess silks, warm tints, rolling in great waves; and right at the bottom, as in a fountain-basin, reposed the heavy stuffs, the figured silks, the damasks, brocades, and lovely silvered silks in the midst of a deep bed of velvet of every sort—black, white, and colored—skillfully disposed on silk and satin grounds, hollowing out with their medley of colors a still lake in which the reflex of the sky seemed to be dancing. The women, pale with desire, bent over as if to look at themselves.”
  9. Crazy quilts became popular in the late 19th century due to the declining price of fabric, particularly in America, and the influence of Japanese art. Women began to use scraps of silk fabric as decorative throws.
  10. Sericulture, a labor-intensive industry in China (and the U.S.), is popular because it’s a process that requires a great deal of manual work. Silk factories in the early days used various methods of organization and management, along with hydraulic power. However, they still heavily relied on delicate silk reeling by women. It’s now heavily mechanizedThe same as other forms of spinning. How did it develop? What were the key breakthroughs?

I could continue. It would be possible to write a whole book about the history and nature behind silk. I had in mind to propose one when I began writing this post. But I can see that someone may have beaten me to itThe UK is a great place to start publishing, and there are many media benefits. (Don’t get me started…) Must be something in the air. Until I see that book, I can’t say.

Virginia Postrel, a writer, has a special interest in the intersection between commerce, culture and technology. Author of “The Future and Its Enemies,” “The Substance of Style,” “The Power of Glamour,” and, most recently, “The Fabric of Civilization.” This essay was first published on Virginia’s newsletter on Substack.

Banner image: Silk, from Nova Reperta which records major inventions of post-classical times c. 1600. The monks are in the background presenting the emperor with silkworm eggs smuggled into their canes. The wall picture shows the stages of sericulture. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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