Silk in Antiquity

Silk in Antiquity

Silk is a fabric first produced in Neolithic China from the filaments of the cocoon of the silk worm. It became a staple source of income for small farmers and, as weaving techniques improved, the reputation of Chinese silk spread so that it became highly desired across the empires of the ancient world. As China's most important export for much of its history, the material gave its name to the great trading network the Silk Road, which connected East Asia to Europe, India, and Africa. Not only used to make fine clothes, silk was used for fans, wall hangings, banners, and as a popular alternative to paper for writers and artists.

Origins & Cultivation

Silk is produced by silk worms (Bombyx mori) to form the cocoon within which the larvae develop. A single specimen is capable of producing a 0.025 mm thick thread over 900 metres (3,000 ft) long. Several such filaments are then twisted together to make a thread thick enough to be used to weave material. Fabrics were created using looms, and treadle-operated versions appear in, for example, the murals in tombs of the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). The silk could be dyed and painted using such minerals and natural materials as cinnabar, red ochre, powdered silver, powdered clam shells, and indigo and other inks extracted from vegetable matter.

The earliest known examples of woven silk date to c. 2700 BCE & come from the site of Qianshanyang in China.

Sericulture - that is the cultivation of mulberry leaves, the tending of silkworms, the gathering of threads from their cocoons and the weaving of silk - first appears in the archaeological record of ancient China c. 3600 BCE. Excavations at Hemudu in Zhejiang province have revealed Neolithic tools for weaving and silk gauze. The earliest known examples of woven silk date to c. 2700 BCE and come from the site of Qianshanyang, also in Zhejiang. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the Indus Valley civilization in the north of the Indian subcontinent was also making silk contemporary with the Neolithic Chinese. They used the Antheraea moth to produce silk threads for weaving.

However, silk production on a large scale and involving more sophisticated weaving techniques would only appear from the Chinese Shang and Zhou dynasties in the 2nd millennium BCE. Silk then became one of the most important manufactured and traded goods in ancient China, and finds of Shang dynasty (c. 1600 - 1046 BCE) silk in an Egyptian tomb are testimony to its esteemed value and use in early international trade.


During the Han dynasty, the quality of silk improved even further, becoming finer, stronger, and often with multicoloured embroidered patterns and designs of human and animal figures. Chinese characters are also woven into the fabric of many surviving examples. The weave of some Han period pieces, with 220 warp threads per centimetre, is extremely fine. The cultivation of the silk worms themselves also became more sophisticated from the 1st century CE with techniques used to speed up or slow their growth by adjusting the temperature of their environment. Different breeds were used, and these were crossed to create silk worms capable of producing threads with different qualities useful to the weavers.

Weavers were usually women, and it was also their responsibility to make sure the silk worms were well fed on their favourite diet of chopped mulberry leaves and that they were sufficiently warm enough to spin thread for their cocoons. The industry became such a vital source of income for families that land dedicated to the cultivation of mulberry bushes was even made exempt from reforms which otherwise took away agricultural land from peasant ownership and mulberry plots became the only land that it was possible for farmers to claim hereditary ownership of. Mencius, the Confucian philosopher, advocated the smallest of land holdings always set aside a plot to plant mulberry. As demand grew, then the state and those with enough capital to do so set up large workshops where both men and women worked. Great aristocratic houses had their own private silk production team with several hundred workers employed in producing silk for the estate's needs and for resale. Silk production even became the subject of poems and songs such as this example from the Master Xun philosophical text of the Warring States period:

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How naked its external form,

Yet it continually transforms like a spirit.

Its achievement covers the world,

For it has created ornament for a myriad generations.

Ritual ceremonies and musical performances are completed through it;

Noble and humble are distinguished with it;

Young and old rely on it;

For with it alone can one survive.

(in Lewis, 114-115)

Eventually, the Chinese could no longer keep the lucrative secret of silk production to themselves and it began to be manufactured in Korea and Japan where it would become a state-controlled industry. Other states and cultures then acquired the skills of sericulture such as India around 300 CE, and from there it spread to Byzantium, Arabia, the Levant, and Italy.

Trade: the Silk Road

The fame of Chinese manufactured silk spread across the famous trade route which took its name - the Silk Road - such was the commodity's importance to the Chinese economy. The Silk Road or Sichou Zhi Lu was actually an entire network of overland camel caravan routes connecting China to the Middle East and hence is now often referred to as the Silk Routes by historians. Silk - in the form of the thread, woven cloth, and finished products - was thus exported via middlemen (no single trader ever travelled the length of the routes) not only to neighbouring states such as the Korean kingdoms and Japan but also to the great empires of India, Persia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In the case of the latter, it is said that the eventual financial collapse of the state was in part due to the constant drain of silver to the east where it went to purchase the silk that the Romans could not live without. The Romans even called the Chinese Seres, after the word for silk in that language.

In addition to land routes and passage across the Inland Sea to Japan, from the 11th century CE Chinese junks sailed and traded across the Indian Ocean and silk thus remained the number one export product of China for centuries; it would only be rivalled by porcelain and tea from the 15th century CE. By the 20th century CE, it would be Japan that would replace China as the world's largest silk producer.


In China, and later elsewhere, silk was used to make clothing (especially long robes, gowns, and jackets), hand fans, furnishings, wall hangings, screens, decorative scenes for and from famous books and poems, military banners, funeral banners, Buddhist mandalas, and for the purposes of writing instead of bamboo or paper. Brightly coloured and exquisitely embroidered silk robes became a status symbol and helped distinguish officials and courtiers from the cotton- or plain-silk-wearing lower classes. In other cultures, such as Korea, there were even laws forbidding the wearing of silk by persons below a certain social rank. Embroidered silk became so varied and refined that a whole connoisseurship developed around the material, similar to that surrounding the fine porcelain of Chinese potters. Taoist priests were another group who were distinguished by their silk robes, often embroidered with ceremonial scenes.

As a valuable commodity bolts of silk were often used as a form of currency, especially in the payment of tribute such as by the Northern Song (960-1127 CE) and the Southern Song (1127-1276 CE) to the Liao and the Jin emperors, respectively. Silk was also an esteemed gift. Given to tributary states in appreciation of their loyalty, it was an impressive symbol of the Chinese emperor's great wealth and largesse. For example, in 25 BCE alone, the Han gave as gifts an incredible 20,000 rolls of silk cloth. Traders used it is a payment, people paid their tax with it, and even armies were sometimes paid in silk.

In art, silk became a popular surface on which to paint landscape scenes and portraits. Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) artists were particularly famed for their skills in dyeing, printing and painting on silk, with many examples of their work surviving in Japan where they were sent as gifts. Silk books were made which had copies of famous paintings and so became reference albums for art connoisseurs.

Cultural Repercussions

The trade of silk and other commodities along the Silk Road also brought with it ideas and cultural practices in both directions; language and writing were especially important elements transmitted along the routes by traders, diplomats, monks, and travellers. Buddhism came to China from India and was then passed on to Korea and Japan. Explorers such as Marco Polo used the route, as did Christian missionaries from the west to enter China for the first time. New foodstuffs were introduced into China and then cultivated there such as walnuts, pomegranates, sesame, and coriander. Silk, symbol of China for so long, had opened the doors to new lands and new ideas, and finally connected the great empires of the ancient world.

Silkworms (Bombyx spp) - The History of Silk Making and Silkworms

Silkworms (incorrectly spelled silk worms) are the larval form of the domesticated silk moth, Bombyx mori. The silk moth was domesticated in its native habitat of northern China from its wild cousin Bombyx mandarina, a cousin which still survives today. Archaeological evidence suggests that occurred about 3500 BCE.

Key Takeaways: Silk Worms

  • Silkworms are the larvae from silk moths (Bombyx mori).
  • They produce silk fibers—water-insoluble filament from glands—to create cocoons humans simply unravel the cocoons back into strings.
  • Domesticated silkworms tolerate human handling and massive crowding and are totally dependent on humans for survival.
  • Silk fibers were used to make clothing by the Longshan period (3500–2000 BCE).

The fabric we call silk is made from the long thin fibers produced by the silkworm during its larval stage. The insect's intent is to create a cocoon for its transformation into the moth form. Silkworm workers simply unravel the cocoons, each cocoon producing between 325–1,000 feet (100–300 meters) of fine, very strong thread.

People today make fabrics from the fibers produced by at least 25 different species of wild and domesticated butterflies and moths in the order Lepidoptera. Two versions of wild silkworm are exploited by silk manufacturers today, B. mandarina in China and far eastern Russia and one in Japan and southern Korea called Japanese B. mandarina. The largest silk industry today is in India, followed by China and Japan, and more than 1,000 inbred strains of silkworms are kept worldwide today.

History of silk

Silk production originated from China in the Neolithic era. Silk manufacturing was restricted to China until the Silk Road opened at one stage during the last half of the first millennium BC, where China maintained a virtual monopoly on silk production for another thousand years. Without limiting the use of clothing, the use of silk was for many applications within China the color of worn silk also carries social significance and forms an important guide to social class during the Tang Dynasty.

Silk cultivation spread to Japan around 300 AD and by 552 AD the Byzantine Empire was able to get silkworm eggs and start silkworm farming The Arabs also started producing silk at the same time. As a result of the expansion of sericulture, Chinese silk exports became less important, although they still dominated the luxury silk market. The Crusades brought silk production to Western Europe, especially some Italian states, saw an economic blast in exporting silk to the rest of Europe. Also began during the Middle Ages in Europe, the development of the manufacturing process, with devices like spinning wheels, first appearing at this time. In the sixteenth century, France joined Italy in developing a successful silk trade, although other countries' efforts to develop their own silk industry failed.

How Silk Spread from China to the World

The beauty of China’s silk did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world. Although other countries did not yet know how to produce silk fabrics, archeologists were able to uncover silk in the burial grounds of several old civilizations. This is thanks to China’s trade activities. These civilizations include ancient Egypt, Persia, and the Greek and Roman empires. China already traded with some foreign countries before the founding of The Silk Route, but it was in the period after when silk really took the world by storm.

Silk and Its Role in The Silk Route

The Silk Road was once the longest and most flourishing trade route in the world. The strong interest other countries showed in China’s silk was one of the contributing causes to the opening of The Silk Road some 200 years AD. China was once isolated from the West by some of the world’s toughest mountain and desert landscapes. Until the founding of The Silk Road. The Silk Road was born when the Han government sent one of their generals West of China to establish trade relationships with foreign states. The road stretched over 6,000 kilometers, all the way from Eastern China to the Mediterranean Sea.

At the time, silk was one of the most valuable goods China had to offer. It was even considered to be more expensive than gold. Silk was seen as a luxurious good, thanks to its shimmer, lasting quality, and beautiful drape. As a result, lots of silk was traded or gifted in return for foreign products. As so much silk passed over this extraordinary trading route, it was later aptly named The Silk Route.

While silk was one of China’s most important trade goods, it was not the only one. China also had other valuable goods to offer the world, such as tea and paper. In return, they received gold, silver, horses, jewels, and much more.

The Silk Route continued to contribute to the development of many major ancient societies until sea trade became more popular in the late Middle Ages. At this point, many countries had already learned how to produce their own silk.

The Spread of Silk Farming

Silk-Making in the Middle East

For thousands of years, China managed to keep a monopoly on silk production. The Mulberry silkworm is native to China, and parts of China also have a favorable climate for growing Mulberry trees. These two natural resources, along with the knowledge of sericulture, were needed to produce silk. The Chinese were serious about keeping their monopoly on silk making. They even enforced a ban on the transport of silkworms and their eggs to other countries. Anyone who disobeyed this ban could be faced with the death penalty.

It was not until much later that the secrets of silk production left China. It is said that the Byzantine emperor hired monks to smuggle silkworm eggs out of China in 500 AD. These monks supposedly smuggled the eggs in their hollow bamboo walking canes, all the way from China to Constantinople. The monks were also said to bring along knowledge of sericulture. This was the first time a country other than China had access to silkworms and learned how to make silk fabrics. It is also likely that sericulture was spread by Chinese migrants who made a living of silk-making abroad.

Just like the Chinese, the Byzantines aimed to keep a monopoly on silk production after learning this precious art. With a monopoly, they were able to maximize their profits when trading silk. The Persians developed their own patterns and designs when weaving silk. However, it was said that Chinese silk was still superior in quality when compared to Byzantian silk. Thanks to its superior quality, Chinese silk remained popular despite the appearance of some healthy competition. After hundreds of years around 630 AD, the Byzantines lost their monopoly on sericulture in their region. This was when the Arabs conquered Persia, where they discovered how to make silk.

Silk-Making in Europe

It took a while for other countries in the West to discover sericulture. It was not until the High Middle Ages that Andalusia in Spain and Venice in Italy took the lead in Europe’s silk-making scene. During this time, around the year 1100, travelers from Constantinople set up their silk-making business in Italy. Today the Como region in Italy is still renowned for its silk-making.

Before silk-making became widespread in what is now known as Europe, its residents obtained silk by trading with China through the Silk Route. The ancient civilization of Rome loved wearing silk garments, and silk fashion was especially popular among society’s rich and politically powerful.

Silk-Making in East Asia

Back in East Asia, the Japanese also managed to obtain silkworm eggs and to learn the art of silk farming around 300 AD. It is said they brought over the eggs from China, along with several women skilled in sericulture. Silk became very popular in Japan as one of the main fabrics used in the making of kimonos. The kimono is a traditional garment in Japan, which was commonly worn on a day to day basis at the time. Silk lent itself well to kimono making, as it was easily dyed, and it gave the garments a luxurious shimmering appearance. Japan would later become one of the world’s largest silk producers, after China.

Silk surely has a fascinating history, filled with fantastical tales. It remains one of the world’s oldest natural fabrics. To this day, silk clothing, scarves, and even bedding remain incredibly popular. Silk has also managed to maintain its reputation as a luxurious fabric. Even in this modern age, silk remains one of the strongest and most longlasting fabrics.

Other than a few technological advances to speed up the production process, silk today is still roughly produced the same way as it was thousands of years ago. After millennia of experience in silk-making, China remains the largest producer of silk in the world, with an output of 150,000 metric tons of silk a year. Next time you wear something made of silk, take a moment to think about the fabric’s impressive millennia-old history.

The Silk Road

The silk road is a name coined by German geographer F. Von Richtofen in 1877, but it refers to a trade network used in antiquity. It was through the silk road that imperial Chinese silk reached luxury-seeking Romans, who also added flavor to their food with spices from the East. Trade went two ways. Indo-Europeans may have brought written language and horse-chariots to China.

Most of the study of Ancient History is divided into the discrete stories of city-states, but with the Silk Road, we have a major over-arching bridge.


The word silk comes from Old English: sioloc, from Ancient Greek: σηρικός , romanized: sērikós, "silken", ultimately from the Chinese word "sī" and other Asian sources—compare Mandarin "silk", Manchurian sirghe, Mongolian sirkek. [4]

The production of silk originated in China in the Neolithic period although, it would eventually reach other places of the world ( Yangshao culture, 4th millennium BC). Silk production remained confined to China until the Silk Road opened at some point during the latter part of the 1st millennium BC, though China maintained its virtual monopoly over silk production for another thousand years.

Wild silk

Several kinds of wild silk, produced by caterpillars other than the mulberry silkworm, have been known and spun in China, South Asia, and Europe since ancient times, e.g. the production of Eri silk in Assam, India. However, the scale of production was always far smaller than for cultivated silks. There are several reasons for this: first, they differ from the domesticated varieties in colour and texture and are therefore less uniform second, cocoons gathered in the wild have usually had the pupa emerge from them before being discovered so the silk thread that makes up the cocoon has been torn into shorter lengths and third, many wild cocoons are covered in a mineral layer that prevents attempts to reel from them long strands of silk. [5] Thus, the only way to obtain silk suitable for spinning into textiles in areas where commercial silks are not cultivated was by tedious and labor-intensive carding.

Some natural silk structures have been used without being unwound or spun. Spider webs were used as a wound dressing in ancient Greece and Rome, [6] and as a base for painting from the 16th century. [7] Caterpillar nests were pasted together to make a fabric in the Aztec Empire. [8]

Commercial silks originate from reared silkworm pupae, which are bred to produce a white-colored silk thread with no mineral on the surface. The pupae are killed by either dipping them in boiling water before the adult moths emerge or by piercing them with a needle. These factors all contribute to the ability of the whole cocoon to be unravelled as one continuous thread, permitting a much stronger cloth to be woven from the silk. Wild silks also tend to be more difficult to dye than silk from the cultivated silkworm. [9] [10] A technique known as demineralizing allows the mineral layer around the cocoon of wild silk moths to be removed, [11] leaving only variability in color as a barrier to creating a commercial silk industry based on wild silks in the parts of the world where wild silk moths thrive, such as in Africa and South America.


Silk use in fabric was first developed in ancient China. [12] [13] The earliest evidence for silk is the presence of the silk protein fibroin in soil samples from two tombs at the neolithic site Jiahu in Henan, which date back about 8,500 years. [14] [15] The earliest surviving example of silk fabric dates from about 3630 BC, and was used as the wrapping for the body of a child at a Yangshao culture site in Qingtaicun near Xingyang, Henan. [12] [16]

Legend gives credit for developing silk to a Chinese empress, Leizu (Hsi-Ling-Shih, Lei-Tzu). Silks were originally reserved for the Emperors of China for their own use and gifts to others, but spread gradually through Chinese culture and trade both geographically and socially, and then to many regions of Asia. Because of its texture and lustre, silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants. Silk was in great demand, and became a staple of pre-industrial international trade. Silk was also used as a surface for writing, especially during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE). The fabric was light, it survived the damp climate of the Yangtze region, absorbed ink well, and provided a white background for the text. [17] In July 2007, archaeologists discovered intricately woven and dyed silk textiles in a tomb in Jiangxi province, dated to the Eastern Zhou dynasty roughly 2,500 years ago. [18] Although historians have suspected a long history of a formative textile industry in ancient China, this find of silk textiles employing "complicated techniques" of weaving and dyeing provides direct evidence for silks dating before the Mawangdui-discovery and other silks dating to the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). [18]

Silk is described in a chapter of the Fan Shengzhi shu from the Western Han (202 BC – 9 AD). There is a surviving calendar for silk production in an Eastern Han (25–220 AD) document. The two other known works on silk from the Han period are lost. [12] The first evidence of the long distance silk trade is the finding of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy of the 21st dynasty, c.1070 BC. [19] The silk trade reached as far as the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. This trade was so extensive that the major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia came to be known as the Silk Road.

The Emperors of China strove to keep knowledge of sericulture secret to maintain the Chinese monopoly. Nonetheless sericulture reached Korea with technological aid from China around 200 BC, [20] the ancient Kingdom of Khotan by AD 50, [21] and India by AD 140. [22]

In the ancient era, silk from China was the most lucrative and sought-after luxury item traded across the Eurasian continent, [23] and many civilizations, such as the ancient Persians, benefited economically from trade. [23]

The silkworms and mulberry leaves are placed on trays.

Twig frames for the silkworms are prepared.

The cocoons are soaked and the silk is wound on spools.

The silk is woven using a loom.

Northeastern India

In the northeastern state of Assam, three different types of indigenous variety of silk are produced, collectively called Assam silk: Muga, Eri and Pat silk. Muga, the golden silk, and Eri are produced by silkworms that are native only to Assam. They have been reared since ancient times similar to other East and South-East Asian countries.


Silk has a long history in India. It is known as Resham in eastern and north India, and Pattu in southern parts of India. Recent archaeological discoveries in Harappa and Chanhu-daro suggest that sericulture, employing wild silk threads from native silkworm species, existed in South Asia during the time of the Indus Valley Civilization (now in Pakistan and India) dating between 2450 BC and 2000 BC, while "hard and fast evidence" for silk production in China dates back to around 2570 BC. [24] [25] Shelagh Vainker, a silk expert at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, who sees evidence for silk production in China "significantly earlier" than 2500–2000 BC, suggests, "people of the Indus civilization either harvested silkworm cocoons or traded with people who did, and that they knew a considerable amount about silk." [24]

India is the second largest producer of silk in the world after China. About 97% of the raw mulberry silk comes from six Indian states, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and West Bengal. [26] North Bangalore, the upcoming site of a $20 million "Silk City" Ramanagara and Mysore, contribute to a majority of silk production in Karnataka. [27]

In Tamil Nadu, mulberry cultivation is concentrated in the Coimbatore, Erode, Bhagalpuri, Tiruppur, Salem and Dharmapuri districts. Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, and Gobichettipalayam, Tamil Nadu, were the first locations to have automated silk reeling units in India. [28]


Silk is produced year-round in Thailand by two types of silkworms, the cultured Bombycidae and wild Saturniidae. Most production is after the rice harvest in the southern and northeastern parts of the country. Women traditionally weave silk on hand looms and pass the skill on to their daughters, as weaving is considered to be a sign of maturity and eligibility for marriage. Thai silk textiles often use complicated patterns in various colours and styles. Most regions of Thailand have their own typical silks. A single thread filament is too thin to use on its own so women combine many threads to produce a thicker, usable fiber. They do this by hand-reeling the threads onto a wooden spindle to produce a uniform strand of raw silk. The process takes around 40 hours to produce a half kilogram of silk. Many local operations use a reeling machine for this task, but some silk threads are still hand-reeled. The difference is that hand-reeled threads produce three grades of silk: two fine grades that are ideal for lightweight fabrics, and a thick grade for heavier material.

The silk fabric is soaked in extremely cold water and bleached before dyeing to remove the natural yellow coloring of Thai silk yarn. To do this, skeins of silk thread are immersed in large tubs of hydrogen peroxide. Once washed and dried, the silk is woven on a traditional hand-operated loom. [29]


The Rajshahi Division of northern Bangladesh is the hub of the country's silk industry. There are three types of silk produced in the region: mulberry, endi and tassar. Bengali silk was a major item of international trade for centuries. It was known as Ganges silk in medieval Europe. Bengal was the leading exporter of silk between the 16th and 19th centuries. [30]

Central Asia

The 7th century CE murals of Afrasiyab in Samarkand, Sogdiana, show a Chinese Embassy carrying silk and a string of silkworm cocoons to the local Sogdian ruler. [31]

Middle East

In the Torah, a scarlet cloth item called in Hebrew "sheni tola'at" שני תולעת – literally "crimson of the worm" – is described as being used in purification ceremonies, such as those following a leprosy outbreak (Leviticus 14), alongside cedar wood and hyssop (za'atar). Eminent scholar and leading medieval translator of Jewish sources and books of the Bible into Arabic, Rabbi Saadia Gaon, translates this phrase explicitly as "crimson silk" – חריר קרמז حرير قرمز.

In Islamic teachings, Muslim men are forbidden to wear silk. Many religious jurists believe the reasoning behind the prohibition lies in avoiding clothing for men that can be considered feminine or extravagant. [32] There are disputes regarding the amount of silk a fabric can consist of (e.g., whether a small decorative silk piece on a cotton caftan is permissible or not) for it to be lawful for men to wear, but the dominant opinion of most Muslim scholars is that the wearing of silk by men is forbidden. Modern attire has raised a number of issues, including, for instance, the permissibility of wearing silk neckties, which are masculine articles of clothing.

Ancient Mediterranean

In the Odyssey, 19.233, when Odysseus, while pretending to be someone else, is questioned by Penelope about her husband's clothing, he says that he wore a shirt "gleaming like the skin of a dried onion" (varies with translations, literal translation here) [33] which could refer to the lustrous quality of silk fabric. Aristotle wrote of Coa vestis, a wild silk textile from Kos. Sea silk from certain large sea shells was also valued. The Roman Empire knew of and traded in silk, and Chinese silk was the most highly priced luxury good imported by them. [23] During the reign of emperor Tiberius, sumptuary laws were passed that forbade men from wearing silk garments, but these proved ineffectual. [34] The Historia Augusta mentions that the third-century emperor Elagabalus was the first Roman to wear garments of pure silk, whereas it had been customary to wear fabrics of silk/cotton or silk/linen blends. [35] Despite the popularity of silk, the secret of silk-making only reached Europe around AD 550, via the Byzantine Empire. Contemporary accounts state that monks working for the emperor Justinian I smuggled silkworm eggs to Constantinople in hollow canes from China. [36] All top-quality looms and weavers were located inside the Great Palace complex in Constantinople, and the cloth produced was used in imperial robes or in diplomacy, as gifts to foreign dignitaries. The remainder was sold at very high prices.

Medieval and modern Europe

Italy was the most important producer of silk during the Medieval age. The first center to introduce silk production to Italy was the city of Catanzaro during the 11th century in the region of Calabria. The silk of Catanzaro supplied almost all of Europe and was sold in a large market fair in the port of Reggio Calabria, to Spanish, Venetian, Genovese and Dutch merchants. Catanzaro became the lace capital of the world with a large silkworm breeding facility that produced all the laces and linens used in the Vatican. The city was world-famous for its fine fabrication of silks, velvets, damasks and brocades. [37]

Another notable center was the Italian city-state of Lucca which largely financed itself through silk-production and silk-trading, beginning in the 12th century. Other Italian cities involved in silk production were Genoa, Venice and Florence.

The Silk Exchange in Valencia from the 15th century—where previously in 1348 also perxal (percale) was traded as some kind of silk—illustrates the power and wealth of one of the great Mediterranean mercantile cities. [38] [39]

Silk was produced in and exported from the province of Granada, Spain, especially the Alpujarras region, until the Moriscos, whose industry it was, were expelled from Granada in 1571. [40] [41]

Since the 15th century, silk production in France has been centered around the city of Lyon where many mechanic tools for mass production were first introduced in the 17th century.

James I attempted to establish silk production in England, purchasing and planting 100,000 mulberry trees, some on land adjacent to Hampton Court Palace, but they were of a species unsuited to the silk worms, and the attempt failed. In 1732 John Guardivaglio set up a silk throwing enterprise at Logwood mill in Stockport in 1744, Burton Mill was erected in Macclesfield and in 1753 Old Mill was built in Congleton. [42] These three towns remained the centre of the English silk throwing industry until silk throwing was replaced by silk waste spinning. British enterprise also established silk filature in Cyprus in 1928. In England in the mid-20th century, raw silk was produced at Lullingstone Castle in Kent. Silkworms were raised and reeled under the direction of Zoe Lady Hart Dyke, later moving to Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire in 1956. [43]

During World War II, supplies of silk for UK parachute manufacture were secured from the Middle East by Peter Gaddum. [44]

A hundred-year-old pattern of silk called "Almgrensrosen"

The necktie originates from the cravat, a neckband made from silk [45] [46] [47]

North America

Wild silk taken from the nests of native caterpillars was used by the Aztecs to make containers and as paper. [48] [8] Silkworms were introduced to Oaxaca from Spain in the 1530s and the region profited from silk production until the early 17th century, when the king of Spain banned export to protect Spain's silk industry. Silk production for local consumption has continued until the present day, sometimes spinning wild silk. [49]

King James I introduced silk-growing to the British colonies in America around 1619, ostensibly to discourage tobacco planting. The Shakers in Kentucky adopted the practice.

The history of industrial silk in the United States is largely tied to several smaller urban centers in the Northeast region. Beginning in the 1830s, Manchester, Connecticut emerged as the early center of the silk industry in America, when the Cheney Brothers became the first in the United States to properly raise silkworms on an industrial scale today the Cheney Brothers Historic District showcases their former mills. [51] With the mulberry tree craze of that decade, other smaller producers began raising silkworms. This economy particularly gained traction in the vicinity of Northampton, Massachusetts and its neighboring Williamsburg, where a number of small firms and cooperatives emerged. Among the most prominent of these was the cooperative utopian Northampton Association for Education and Industry, of which Sojourner Truth was a member. [52] Following the destructive Mill River Flood of 1874, one manufacturer, William Skinner, relocated his mill from Williamsburg to the then-new city of Holyoke. Over the next 50 years he and his sons would maintain relations between the American silk industry and its counterparts in Japan, [53] and expanded their business to the point that by 1911, the Skinner Mill complex contained the largest silk mill under one roof in the world, and the brand Skinner Fabrics had become the largest manufacturer of silk satins internationally. [50] [54] Other efforts later in the 19th century would also bring the new silk industry to Paterson, New Jersey, with several firms hiring European-born textile workers and granting it the nickname "Silk City" as another major center of production in the United States.

World War II interrupted the silk trade from Asia, and silk prices increased dramatically. [55] U.S. industry began to look for substitutes, which led to the use of synthetics such as nylon. Synthetic silks have also been made from lyocell, a type of cellulose fiber, and are often difficult to distinguish from real silk (see spider silk for more on synthetic silks).


In Terengganu, which is now part of Malaysia, a second generation of silkworm was being imported as early as 1764 for the country's silk textile industry, especially songket. [56] However, since the 1980s, Malaysia is no longer engaged in sericulture but does plant mulberry trees.


In Vietnamese legend, silk appeared in the first millennium AD and is still being woven today.

The process of silk production is known as sericulture. [57] The entire production process of silk can be divided into several steps which are typically handled by different entities. [ clarification needed ] Extracting raw silk starts by cultivating the silkworms on mulberry leaves. Once the worms start pupating in their cocoons, these are dissolved in boiling water in order for individual long fibres to be extracted and fed into the spinning reel. [58]

To produce 1 kg of silk, 104 kg of mulberry leaves must be eaten by 3000 silkworms. It takes about 5000 silkworms to make a pure silk kimono. [59] : 104 The major silk producers are China (54%) and India (14%). [60] Other statistics: [61]

The environmental impact of silk production is potentially large when compared with other natural fibers. A life-cycle assessment of Indian silk production shows that the production process has a large carbon and water footprint, mainly due to the fact that it is an animal-derived fiber and more inputs such as fertilizer and water are needed per unit of fiber produced. [62]

Physical properties

Silk fibers from the Bombyx mori silkworm have a triangular cross section with rounded corners, 5–10 μm wide. The fibroin-heavy chain is composed mostly of beta-sheets, due to a 59-mer amino acid repeat sequence with some variations. [63] The flat surfaces of the fibrils reflect light at many angles, giving silk a natural sheen. The cross-section from other silkworms can vary in shape and diameter: crescent-like for Anaphe and elongated wedge for tussah. Silkworm fibers are naturally extruded from two silkworm glands as a pair of primary filaments (brin), which are stuck together, with sericin proteins that act like glue, to form a bave. Bave diameters for tussah silk can reach 65 μm. See cited reference for cross-sectional SEM photographs. [64]

Silk has a smooth, soft texture that is not slippery, unlike many synthetic fibers.

Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers, but it loses up to 20% of its strength when wet. It has a good moisture regain of 11%. Its elasticity is moderate to poor: if elongated even a small amount, it remains stretched. It can be weakened if exposed to too much sunlight. It may also be attacked by insects, especially if left dirty.

One example of the durable nature of silk over other fabrics is demonstrated by the recovery in 1840 of silk garments from a wreck of 1782: 'The most durable article found has been silk for besides pieces of cloaks and lace, a pair of black satin breeches, and a large satin waistcoat with flaps, were got up, of which the silk was perfect, but the lining entirely gone . from the thread giving way . No articles of dress of woollen cloth have yet been found.' [65]

Silk is a poor conductor of electricity and thus susceptible to static cling. Silk has a high emissivity for infrared light, making it feel cool to the touch. [66]

Unwashed silk chiffon may shrink up to 8% due to a relaxation of the fiber macrostructure, so silk should either be washed prior to garment construction, or dry cleaned. Dry cleaning may still shrink the chiffon up to 4%. Occasionally, this shrinkage can be reversed by a gentle steaming with a press cloth. There is almost no gradual shrinkage nor shrinkage due to molecular-level deformation.

Natural and synthetic silk is known to manifest piezoelectric properties in proteins, probably due to its molecular structure. [67]

Silkworm silk was used as the standard for the denier, a measurement of linear density in fibers. Silkworm silk therefore has a linear density of approximately 1 den, or 1.1 dtex.

Comparison of silk fibers [68] Linear density (dtex) Diameter (μm) Coeff. variation
Moth: Bombyx mori 1.17 12.9 24.8%
Spider: Argiope aurantia 0.14 3.57 14.8%

Chemical properties

Silk emitted by the silkworm consists of two main proteins, sericin and fibroin, fibroin being the structural center of the silk, and serecin being the sticky material surrounding it. Fibroin is made up of the amino acids Gly-Ser-Gly-Ala-Gly-Ala and forms beta pleated sheets. Hydrogen bonds form between chains, and side chains form above and below the plane of the hydrogen bond network.

The high proportion (50%) of glycine allows tight packing. This is because glycine's R group is only a hydrogen and so is not as sterically constrained. The addition of alanine and serine makes the fibres strong and resistant to breaking. This tensile strength is due to the many interceded hydrogen bonds, and when stretched the force is applied to these numerous bonds and they do not break.

Silk is resistant to most mineral acids, except for sulfuric acid, which dissolves it. It is yellowed by perspiration. Chlorine bleach will also destroy silk fabrics.

Regenerated silk fiber

RSF is produced by chemically dissolving silkworm cocoons, leaving their molecular structure intact. The silk fibers dissolve into tiny thread-like structures known as microfibrils. The resulting solution is extruded through a small opening, causing the microfibrils to reassemble into a single fiber. The resulting material is reportedly twice as stiff as silk. [69]


Silk's absorbency makes it comfortable to wear in warm weather and while active. Its low conductivity keeps warm air close to the skin during cold weather. It is often used for clothing such as shirts, ties, blouses, formal dresses, high fashion clothes, lining, lingerie, pajamas, robes, dress suits, sun dresses and Eastern folk costumes. For practical use, silk is excellent as clothing that protects from many biting insects that would ordinarily pierce clothing, such as mosquitoes and horseflies.

Fabrics that are often made from silk include charmeuse, habutai, chiffon, taffeta, crepe de chine, dupioni, noil, tussah, and shantung, among others.


Silk's attractive lustre and drape makes it suitable for many furnishing applications. It is used for upholstery, wall coverings, window treatments (if blended with another fiber), rugs, bedding and wall hangings. [70]


Silk had many industrial and commercial uses, such as in parachutes, bicycle tires, comforter filling and artillery gunpowder bags. [71]


A special manufacturing process removes the outer sericin coating of the silk, which makes it suitable as non-absorbable surgical sutures. This process has also recently led to the introduction of specialist silk underclothing, which has been used for skin conditions including eczema. [72] [73] New uses and manufacturing techniques have been found for silk for making everything from disposable cups to drug delivery systems and holograms. [74]


Silk began to serve as a biomedical material for sutures in surgeries as early as the second century CE. [75] In the past 30 years, it has been widely studied and used as a biomaterial due to its mechanical strength, biocompatibility, tunable degradation rate, ease to load cellular growth factors (for example, BMP-2), and its ability to be processed into several other formats such as films, gels, particles, and scaffolds. [76] Silks from Bombyx mori, a kind of cultivated silkworm, are the most widely investigated silks. [77]

Silks derived from Bombyx mori are generally made of two parts: the silk fibroin fiber which contains a light chain of 25kDa and a heavy chain of 350kDa (or 390kDa [78] ) linked by a single disulfide bond [79] and a glue-like protein, sericin, comprising 25 to 30 percentage by weight. Silk fibroin contains hydrophobic beta sheet blocks, interrupted by small hydrophilic groups. And the beta-sheets contribute much to the high mechanical strength of silk fibers, which achieves 740 MPa, tens of times that of poly(lactic acid) and hundreds of times that of collagen. This impressive mechanical strength has made silk fibroin very competitive for applications in biomaterials. Indeed, silk fibers have found their way into tendon tissue engineering, [80] where mechanical properties matter greatly. In addition, mechanical properties of silks from various kinds of silkworms vary widely, which provides more choices for their use in tissue engineering.

Most products fabricated from regenerated silk are weak and brittle, with only ≈1–2% of the mechanical strength of native silk fibers due to the absence of appropriate secondary and hierarchical structure,


Biocompatibility, i.e., to what level the silk will cause an immune response, is a critical issue for biomaterials. The issue arose during its increasing clinical use. Wax or silicone is usually used as a coating to avoid fraying and potential immune responses [76] when silk fibers serve as suture materials. Although the lack of detailed characterization of silk fibers, such as the extent of the removal of sericin, the surface chemical properties of coating material, and the process used, make it difficult to determine the real immune response of silk fibers in literature, it is generally believed that sericin is the major cause of immune response. Thus, the removal of sericin is an essential step to assure biocompatibility in biomaterial applications of silk. However, further research fails to prove clearly the contribution of sericin to inflammatory responses based on isolated sericin and sericin based biomaterials. [82] In addition, silk fibroin exhibits an inflammatory response similar to that of tissue culture plastic in vitro [83] [84] when assessed with human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs) or lower than collagen and PLA when implant rat MSCs with silk fibroin films in vivo. [84] Thus, appropriate degumming and sterilization will assure the biocompatibility of silk fibroin, which is further validated by in vivo experiments on rats and pigs. [85] There are still concerns about the long-term safety of silk-based biomaterials in the human body in contrast to these promising results. Even though silk sutures serve well, they exist and interact within a limited period depending on the recovery of wounds (several weeks), much shorter than that in tissue engineering. Another concern arises from biodegradation because the biocompatibility of silk fibroin does not necessarily assure the biocompatibility of the decomposed products. In fact, different levels of immune responses [86] [87] and diseases [88] have been triggered by the degraded products of silk fibroin.


Biodegradability (also known as biodegradation)—the ability to be disintegrated by biological approaches, including bacteria, fungi, and cells—is another significant property of biomaterials today. Biodegradable materials can minimize the pain of patients from surgeries, especially in tissue engineering, there is no need of surgery in order to remove the scaffold implanted. Wang et al. [89] showed the in vivo degradation of silk via aqueous 3-D scaffolds implanted into Lewis rats. Enzymes are the means used to achieve degradation of silk in vitro. Protease XIV from Streptomyces griseus and α-chymotrypsin from bovine pancreases are the two popular enzymes for silk degradation. In addition, gamma-radiation, as well as cell metabolism, can also regulate the degradation of silk.

Compared with synthetic biomaterials such as polyglycolides and polylactides, silk is obviously advantageous in some aspects in biodegradation. The acidic degraded products of polyglycolides and polylactides will decrease the pH of the ambient environment and thus adversely influence the metabolism of cells, which is not an issue for silk. In addition, silk materials can retain strength over a desired period from weeks to months as needed by mediating the content of beta sheets.

Genetic modification

Genetic modification of domesticated silkworms has been used to alter the composition of the silk. [90] As well as possibly facilitating the production of more useful types of silk, this may allow other industrially or therapeutically useful proteins to be made by silkworms. [91]

Silk Road Threads Through History

National Geographic Archaeology Fellow Fredrik Hiebert explains the significance of Afghanistan to the ancient Silk Road&mdashand how the country might develop a new Silk Road in the future.

Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Religion, Social Studies, World History

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The Silk Road was an ancient, storied network of roads, trading posts, and oases that linked Asia and the Mediterranean basin.

The modern nation of Afghanistan was a major thoroughfare of the Silk Road. Today, the region continues to be a crossroads for concepts of ancient and modern, East and West, geography and history.

Afghanistan is a land of rugged mountains, but its intimidating topography was actually beneficial to ancient traders, says Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, a National Geographic Society archaeology fellow.

&ldquoWhy do you call it a crossroads of trade if there is a giant, massive, mountainous blob right in the middle of Afghanistan?&rdquo he asks. &ldquoWell, those mountains and those rivers are the best things to facilitate trade. Because what happened is you look at the mountains, and you see these valleys that go up into the mountains. Those are superhighways. You go up from the deserts, and you can go up through the mountains. It&rsquos easy. You don&rsquot really have to know too much about navigation.&rdquo

Graveyard of Empires

Afghanistan sat at a strategic juncture between the empires of Asia, eastern Africa, and southern Europe. Traders and travelers on the Silk Road could interact with the cultures of China, India, Persia, Arabia, eastern Africa, the Maghreb, and the eastern Mediterranean.

&ldquoIt is almost equidistant between the China Sea and the Mediterranean,&rdquo Hiebert says.

Afghanistan&rsquos central location on the Silk Road helped develop the region&rsquos impressive wealth.

&ldquoIt was kind of mythical in the past, because it was very wealthy,&rdquo Hiebert says. &ldquoThey not only had a lot of agriculture, they had a lot of animal wealth, because [the region] is really great for herding. And they had mineral wealth.&rdquo

The wealth and cosmopolitan culture of Afghanistan&rsquos trading outposts made them popular sites on the Silk Road. Settlements including Tepe Fullol, Ai Khanoum, Bamiyan, and Bagram (current site of the U.S. military&rsquos Bagram Airfield) were bustling stops for traders.

It wasn&rsquot only trade goods, however, that moved across Afghanistan. Powerful ideas spread through the region. Trade, religion, communication, and political thought all interacted on the Silk Road.

Buddhism, for instance, started in India and spread to Afghanistan before migrating to China, Hiebert says.

Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, was a Buddhist center with towering statues that dominated local cliffs before they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

&ldquoThose giant Buddhas were 60 to 90 meters (200 to 300 feet) tall,&rdquo Hiebert says. &ldquoThose were very easy beacons for traders.&rdquo

Art, too, developed diverse influences. Greek architectural style, for instance, permeates the ruins of Ai Khanoum, an archaeological site in modern Afghanistan&rsquos northeast. Ai Khanoum was conquered by Alexander the Great, and inscriptions to Greek gods such as Hermes and Heracles have been found on artifacts.

The same elements that made Afghanistan so attractive to ancient traders also made it a target for conquest.

&ldquoOnce you have that kind of wealth,&rdquo Hiebert says, &ldquothe next thing you know is you have all these foreign people coming onto your soil trying to take it over.&rdquo

But from the Greek forces of Alexander the Great to the British Empire of the 19th century, Afghanistan has proved to be nearly impossible to permanently conquer. The region&rsquos climate and landscape have earned it the bitter nickname &ldquoGraveyard of Empires.&rdquo

&ldquoFirst of all is that it is right smack dab in the center of Asia, and what that means is the climate is continental,&rdquo Hiebert says. &ldquoContinental climate means that it is not buffered by the ocean&rsquos currents. So it is really cold in the winter, and it&rsquos really hot in the summer. It&rsquos a pretty tough place to be.&rdquo

Historically, the region&rsquos climate and landscape have also made it difficult for Afghans to unify.

&ldquoBecause the valleys are the main sort of thoroughfares, the country itself is kind of fractured,&rdquo Hiebert says. &ldquoThere&rsquos a lot of inter-valley competition. There is fighting.&rdquo

New Silk Road

Despite the civil and foreign wars that have defined modern Afghanistan for more than 30 years, Hiebert says he and other archaeologists take a longer view of history.

&ldquoThere is chaos and everything like that,&rdquo he admits. &ldquoBut it is not at all the perspective of an archaeologist who is looking over the past 5,000 years.&rdquo

Afghanistan has the resources to thrive once the country stabilizes, Hiebert says. He points out that one of the largest underground copper deposits in the world was just found in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has other natural resources that may contribute to a new Silk Road.

&ldquoWe like to think that the 21st century is the century where those old networks are going to be re-established,&rdquo Hiebert says. &ldquoIt&rsquos not silk anymore. It&rsquos oil and gas.&rdquo

Still, the archaeologist says, it may take Afghanistan years to recover from its long-running war and turmoil.

&ldquoLet me leave you with this thought,&rdquo Hiebert says. &ldquoAfghanistan is a tough place, but you know what? Europe was tough after World War II. How long did it take after four years of social disruption in Europe? It took a long time to repair and recover. How long do you think it will take Afghanistan, that has had over 30 years of civil war? It is not going to happen overnight.&rdquo

History of Silk Fabric

Silk is a natural protein fiber produced by mulberry silkworm which is used for textile manufacturing. Silk fiber has a triangular prism-like structure which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles and with that to produce different colors.

History of silk began in the 27th century BC in China where it remained in sole use until the commercial ways appeared from China to the Mediterranean Sea. There is also evidence of silk dating between 4000 and 3000 BCE. During the latter half of the first millennium BC, Silk Road opens and silk starts to spread the world. Cultivation of silk spread to Japan somewhere around 300 CE while by 522 the Byzantines managed to obtain silkworm eggs and were able to begin silkworm cultivation of their own. In time Chinese lost their secret to the Koreans and later the Indians.

In China, only women farmed silk worms. Many women were employed on the farms of silkworms. Silk was considered a luxury item and silk became very popular among high society. Popularity was such that laws were made to regulate and limit use of silk to the members of the imperial family. That rule stayed in power for over millennia. In time other classes of Chinese society were allowed to wear silk.

Silk was not used just for clothing. Paper was also made out of silk and it was the first type of luxury paper. Again its worth became more valuable and it was used as pay for government officials and compensation to citizens who were particularly worthy. The length of the silk cloth became a monetary standard in China.

In 552 CE the Byzantine emperor Justinian obtained the first silkworm eggs. He had sent two Nestorian monks to Central Asia and they smuggled silkworm eggs to him hidden in rods of bamboo. That moment marks beginning of silk industry in the Eastern Roman Empire. Techniques of silk production began to spread across Western Europe with Crusades. In time changing technology advanced the textile industry.

Italian silk cloth was very expensive so French fashion, which continuously demanded lighter and less expensive materials began making silk locally. In 1540 the king granted a monopoly on silk production to the city of Lyon and it became the capital of the European silk trade. By the 17th century over 14,000 looms were in use in Lyon.

While the start of the Industrial Revolution marked a massive boom in the textile industry, silk industry did not gain any benefit from innovations in spinning because silk is naturally already a thread. Progress was made by simplification and standardization of silk manufacture and with inventing of the revolutionary Jacquard loom which could be programmed.

Decline in the European silk industry started in 1845 with first silkworm diseases which increased the price of silkworm cocoons. Fashion also changed and importance of silk in the garments of the bourgeoisie declined. With crisis in Europe Japan became world's greatest producer of silk which lasted until the World war Two. Today, People's Republic of China is the world's largest silk producer.


According to legend, about 140 bce , sericulture as well as silk had spread overland from China to India. By the 2nd century ce India was shipping its own raw silk and silk cloth to Persia. ( Japan, too, acquired and developed a thriving sericulture a few centuries later.)

Persia became a centre of silk trade between East and West under the Parthians (247 bce –224 ce ). Silk dyeing and weaving developed as crafts in Syria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The workers there used some raw silk from East Asia, but they derived most of their yarn by unraveling silk fabrics from the East. Silk culture largely remained a secret of Asia.

Eventually a strong demand for the local production of raw silk arose in the Mediterranean area. Justinian I, Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565, persuaded two Persian monks who had lived in China to return there and smuggle silkworms to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the hollows of their bamboo canes (c. 550 ce ). These few hardy silkworms were the beginning of all the varieties that stocked and supplied European sericulture until the 19th century.

Silk culture flourished in Europe for many centuries, especially in the Italian city-states and (from 1480) in France. In 1854, however, a devastating silkworm plague appeared. Louis Pasteur, who was asked to study the disease in 1865, discovered the cause and developed a means of control. The Italian industry recovered, but that of France never did. Meanwhile Japan was modernizing its methods of sericulture, and soon it was supplying a large portion of the world’s raw silk. During and after World War II the substitution of such man-made fibres as nylon in making hosiery and other garments greatly reduced the silk industry. Still, silk has remained an important luxury material and remains an important product of China, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand.

Watch the video: Chris REACTS to Spiritbox - Silk In The Strings (January 2022).