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Give a summary in not more than 160 words of the origin of silk, the stories of how its secret traveled abroad and the importance of silk today.

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 Chi.

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 of kings'.

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.


Main points
1 Chinese found silk
2 Reserved for royalty
3 Knowledge closely-guarded secret
4 Legends of how secret went to Japan, India, Europe

5 Silk today
6 New silk source in Indonesia.

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The Chinese discovered silk and kept it a secret for 2,500 years. For a long time only royalty could use it. Despite exporting silk to the West, the Chinese guarded their knowledge of silk strictly. There are many stories about how the secret went abroad.

The Japanese used Chinese maidens with knowledge about silk to smuggle out mulberry plants and silk moth eggs. The Chinese bride of an Indian prince hid those items in her headgear. The secret went to Europe via Constantinople, carried by two monks in their canes.

Today silk is available to everyone, although still highly priced. It is also useful in other fields like medicine and technology.

A new source of silk has recently been discovered in Indonesia. It is a wild moth producing silk thread. Companies from developed countries are keen to know more about it. This industry might become important to the country's economy. (150 words)


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