It all began with the tumble of a cocoon into a teacup almost 5,000 years ago . . . and it has yet to end. The long, winding, gossamer threads of the silk worm have woven a remarkable fabric of historical significance throughout its travel along the Silk Road and into today’s most tony interiors.
One of history’s most fervently guarded manufacturing secrets
for more than 3,000 years, our fascination with silk has never waned.
Person to person, country to country, when one describes luxe—the
word “silk” is always in the mix. Here’s a look at
silk throughout the centuries.
CHINA: THE SECRET BEGINNING (2460 BC)
A tempest in a teacup! Chinese princess Xi Ling Shi watched as a
cocoon, which had fallen from an adjacent mulberry tree into her
tea, began to unravel. A beautiful, delicate thread was her reward,
and legend says she gathered hundreds more of these cocoons, harvested
the thread, and wove them into a garment for the Emperor.
In the land of the red dragon, of stunning reds and yellows, silk
was sold and traded, but its source was not revealed for thousands
of years. In fact, it is said that the penalty for anyone caught
exporting silkworm eggs—was death.
Sericulture (or the culture of the silkworm) follows many steps
to its finished product: First, the cocoons are sorted for color
and texture, then steamed to soften the natural glue, or gum, that
holds the filament into its shape. Next, the filament is “reeled”—or
unwound, so to speak. Producing about two thousand to three thousand
feet of filament per cocoon, these single strands are twisted together
to create a thread sturdy enough to control. At this point in the
process, you would be holding in your hands something called raw
Next, the raw silk is prepared for the loom through the process
of “throwing”—twisting and doubling the thread to
thicken and strengthen it. There are a couple of different ways
the silk can be thrown depending upon the type of usage it will
have in its end, be it something delicate and airy or for something
more sturdy such as embroidery thread.
Finally, the residual glue is boiled off and the thread is prepared
for dyeing or bleaching.
INDUSTRIAL ESPIONAGE! (552 AD)
On a mission to uncover the origin of silk—in other words,
in the first documented instance of industrial espionage—two
monks were sent to Asia by decree of Byzantium Emperor Justinian
I. They returned with silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds hidden inside
their bamboo walking sticks. Mission accomplished!
Oh, what a Turkish delight to suddenly have the key to the kingdom
of silk! Byzantium became renowned for its luxe textiles made of
silk, which were then scattered throughout medieval Europe for royalty
and garments for the church.
From Turkey, sericulture moved through northern Africa, to Spain
and Sicily and by the 12th century, exquisite silks of all designs
and textures were being manufactured.
LYONS, FRANCE: MERCI, LOUIS! (1470)
It is said that when King Louis XI moved into his château
in the Loire Valley region, he eschewed Italian textiles (too expensive,
too imported—merde! not French!) and instead hired 17 weavers
to create silk hangings for his abode.
From France’s Cevennes region came the raw silk. The strands
were then sent to Tours for twisting, and finally ended in La Grand
Manufacture in Lyons for dyeing and weaving. Yes, it is without
a doubt that our good King Louis XI was the kingpin in the launch
of the French silk industry.
VENICE, ITALY: RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION—
THE HUGUENOTS (1685)
You can thank Marco Polo, the great Venetian explorer, for making
Italy’s lovely isle of Venetia a gateway for the silk industry.
However, it wasn’t until after the French Huguenots fled religious
persecution due to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes—in
a nutshell, a paper which urged the extermination of Catholics—did
the production of silk in Italy begin to make tangible headway.
Many of these Catholics were also expert weavers, and in their new
home in Venice, contributed greatly to the development of the silk
The wide variety of silks produced, from tantalizing taffetas, creamy
crepes, chic chiffons, scrumptious satins, billowing brocades and
impressive damasks, made Venice a gateway to greatness. A loss to
French society, yes, as these artists continued to hone their craft
over the next century—but certainly a gain for the azure and
gold flag of the province of Venezia.
EUROPEAN SILK OF THE LATE 19th CENTURY
Advancements in the production of silk, such as silk weaving looms,
roller printing and power looms were all a part of English ingenuity
and innovation. In 1801, Frenchman Joseph Jacquard unveiled his
new figured-silk weaving machine and in the late 1800s, the great
scientist Louis Pasteur liberated the silk industry by proving that
silkworm disease could be controlled by simple preventative measures.
After these innovations, production and manufacturing techniques
were refined and silk production advanced measurably.
SILKS OF THE 21th CENTURY
Today, silks of all kinds are still considered the height of luxury
and fashion. From the silkiest of sheets to the most refined of
window treatments, silk is a treat for the eyes and is a joy to
Kathleen Stoehr is president of Chemistry Creative, based in Minneapolis,
MN. She has more than seven years’ experience covering trends,
window treatments and interior fashions, and is a former editor-in-chief
of Window Fashions magazine. Stoehr can be contacted for comments,
queries and trend information at email@example.com.