For centuries silk was a fabric available only to royal families or the very
rich. It was regarded as worth its weight in gold. Indeed it is a special
material. Delicate and glossy, it absorbs colours better than any other
fabric. Yards and yards of pure silk can easily go through a lady's ring.
Opened up, it can be wrapped round a person to provide warmth from the cold
or a cool touch when it is warm.
No wonder silk-weaving was a
closely-guarded secret for centuries. Silk, and the silkworm from whose
cocoon it is spun, used to be fiercely-kept secrets in China. The story of
silk therefore is made up of yarns spun on legend and myth. A popular tale
of how it was first discovered is the one about a Chinese empress, Shi Ling
One day, the empress was strolling in her palace grounds among the
mulberry bushes. She noticed little worms spinning shining amber cocoons in
the bushes. Picking up one of the cocoons, she unwound the thread and found
that it was one long strand of shiny material. Fascinated by her discovery,
she pulled strands from other cocoons through her ring to form a thicker
thread. Eventually, with the help of her ladies-in-waiting, she spun the
threads into a beautiful piece of cloth. This cloth was made into a
magnificent robe for the emperor, Huang Ti. Silk became known as the 'cloth
For thousands of years only the royal family of China had silk. The
Chinese kept the secret of making silk for 2,500 years. Although the
material was sold to the West, the source of the precious thread was not
revealed. The punishment for disclosing that silk came from the cocoons of
the silkworms was death.
Legends abound relating to how other countries tried to obtain the secret
of silk. According to one, the Japanese carried off four Chinese maidens
with mulberry shoots and silk moth eggs hidden in their sleeves. Another
story is about a Chinese princess who married an Indian prince. She smuggled
silkworm eggs and mulberry shoots in her elaborate headdress. Whatever
truths there are in these tales, Japan and India are the other leading
producers of silk today.
Even today the palace in Japan rears its own silkworms. The silk produced
is used for repairing treasures in the palace and making gifts for foreign
dignitaries. Members of the Japanese household often participate in silk
weaving and dyeing.
How silk spread to Europe is told in the story of the two monks who were
sent to China by Emperor Justinian of Constantinople. Their mission was to
acquire some silk moth eggs and mulberry shoots. They returned years later
with the desired items hidden inside their hollowed-out walking sticks.
Constantinople was then the Byzantine capital, and the crossroads between
East and West. The secret soon spread throughout Europe.
Today silk can be worn by everyone. It comes in several forms: satin,
chiffon, crepe, taffeta, raw silk and so on. Fine silk is very expensive.
What the silkworm took three days to spin is unraveled in five minutes to
produce three meters of silk. It takes 150 silkworms to make a man's
necktie. It has been estimated that it took three trillion silkworms to make
Princess Diana's taffeta wedding gown!
Silk is also useful in a wide variety of applications from medicine to space
technology and the cultivation of silkworms is possible anywhere mulberry
trees are grown.
In Indonesia, silk is being spun from the cocoons of a certain wild moth
found in a village outside Jogjakarta. The cocoons, found on tops of trees
ten meters from the ground, provide a very fine silky thread. Villagers are
earning US$100 a year gathering these cocoons. This wild moth silk industry
has attracted the interest of Japanese and Western companies. At the moment,
only 50 kilograms of silk is being produced a month.
There have been plans to double the production soon. It is a new industry
that could help revive the Indonesian economy.
The globalisation of the silk industry continues.