Silk is Fascinating

Posted inCreative Voices

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

  1. Sericulture is incredibly old and incredibly complicated. Each stage in the process requires careful control of temperature and timing. How did domestication of Bombyx mori, which can’t survive in the wild, take place? Legend has it that the empress Xi Lingshi discovered silk when a cocoon fell from the mulberry tree under which she was drinking tea and unraveled in the warm liquid. 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. Should we therefore assume that the countless innovations necessary to develop this culturally central and economically significant industry were all attributable to forgotten women? It’s pretty safe to assume that the spindle wheel—the first belt drive—was.
  3. Silk has been traded across extremely long distances for a very long time. Strands of silk have been found in the hair of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. Ancient Greeks and Romans knew and valued silk but generally believed it came from plants. Pliny the Elder knew it came from moths but thought they wove it like spiders make webs.
  4. China maintained its monopoly on sericulture for centuries, although silk cultivation eventually spread to Korea and then Japan. It reached Byzantium around 550 CE. The story goes that two monks smuggled silkworm eggs out of China in bamboo canes. The earliest cultivation of silk in Western Europe was in Sicily in the 12th century.
  5. Skipping ahead, there were many attempts at sericulture in parts of what is now the U.S. but none succeeded.
  6. Silk weavers came to England in large numbers as Huguenot refugees in the 16th and 17th centuries, making the Spitalfields area of London a center of silk production.
Imported Silk Reeling Machine at Tsukiji in Tokyo by Utagawa Yoshitora, 1872 Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  1. Japan’s silk industry was critical to its industrialization once it emerged from isolation in the mid-19th century. Japan imported European reeling techniques and equipment and exported better silkworm hybrids. (I discuss this a little in The Fabric of Civilization.) Large numbers of Japanese women were employed in silk reeling factories like the one shown in this 19th-century print. (Did this employment affect what Alice Evans calls the “great gender divergence”? How does women’s role in sericulture and silk factories fit into her theories? She writes a little about it here.)
  2. Silk production represented the first large-scale, 24/7, mechanized factories, a century before the Industrial Revolution. (I discuss this at length in The Fabric of Civilization.)
  3. A silkworm disease was the first malady linked to a specific microorganism, demonstrating empirical proof of the germ theory of disease. A few decades later, silkworms were the first animals whose diseases were studied by Louis Pasteur. (Also discussed in The Fabric of Civilization.)
  4. Like wool and unlike cotton and linen, silk takes dye incredibly well.
  5. Silk is the only biological fiber to come in long filaments that do not require spinning. It was the inspiration for the cellulose-based artificial fibers (primarily viscose, or rayon) and synthetic fibers (nylon, polyester) developed in the 20th century.
  6. Rayon was marketed as 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 important in medical applications and becoming more so. Surgeons have used silk sutures for 2,000 years, although for that use silk has now mostly been replaced by synthetics. In recent years, research spun off from the SilkLab at Tufts University has led to many more medical applications using silk proteins, including a treatment for vocal cord problems and scaffolds used in tissue repairs. (I’ve commissioned a fascinating article on the SilkLab from Boston Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Works 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. The crazy quilt craze of the 19th century was driven by the falling price of silk fabric, especially in the United States, as well as influences from Japanese art. Scraps of silk became common enough for women to turn them into purely decorative throws.
  10. Sericulture is a labor-intensive process, which is one reason for its success in the Chinese countryside (and probably a reason for its failure in the U.S.). The early silk factories pioneered various forms of management and organization, as well as hydraulic power, but they still depended heavily on the delicate touch of silk reeling women. It’s now heavily mechanized, like other forms of spinning. How did that develop? What were the critical breakthroughs?

I could go on. The history and nature of silk is so interesting that it could make a book all by itself. When I started writing this post a few days ago, I was thinking about proposing one. But I see that someone may have beaten me to it, with the significant media advantages that come from first publishing in the UK. (Don’t get me started…) Must be something in the air. Until I see that book, I can’t say.

Virginia Postrel is a writer with a particular interest in the intersection of 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 originally published on Virginia’s newsletter on Substack.

Banner image: Silk from Nova Reperta (New Inventions of Modern Times), which recorded major inventions of the post-classical period c. 1600. The monks in the foreground are presenting their canes with smuggled silkworm eggs to the emperor. The picture on the wall shows stages in sericulture. Metropolitan Museum of Art.