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The History Of Silk

Here at This Is Silk, we are completely obsessed with this ancient fabric, once more precious than gold, and the way it is still so relevant and desirable today.   In the West, we traditionally associate Silk with clothing, but more and more we are learning that Silk has a natural synergy with our Skin and Hair, and is the perfect, partner for our beauty regimes.

The fascinating history of Silk deserves to be known, so here is a very short overview:

Vast volumes have been written about Silk and rightly so, given its colourful history and the way it is said to have influenced human history and development. I could not hope to compete with that or do the subject full justice here, but I thought I would provide some of the more interesting bits for you. Even a potted history of Silk is fascinating!

It is also nice to know, I think, the history of what you are buying.

There is a lot of talk at the moment of knowing the provenance of goods...

and few can compare with Silk...

Up until 2016, it was thought that the earliest remains of Silk dated the fabric back to 5,000 years ago. Ancient, by anyone’s standards...

And then in 2016, a group of scientists declared that actually, Silk was about 8,500 years old. 

It is fascinating to think that the fabric you covet, wear and sleep on, is 8,500 years old! The Silk fragments found in China were alongside bone needles and weaving tools, so it is certain that even then, Silk was being woven and sewn into clothes. Silk is quite a labour-intensive fabric to produce and I think it is amazing that it was as alluring then as it is now, that they were prepared to put the work into it in the Stone Age..! I am not sure I would be prepared to sit around weaving silk if I had to hunt and forage for my food, whilst fending off sabre-tooth tigers and living in a cave… 

( By contrast, if we consider the new, synthetic fabrics, like Nylon and Polyester, which have only been around since the 1940s, it is unlikely that the world will tolerate these fabrics for another 50 years, given what we now know about the harmful effects of plastics on the world...)

Silk was discovered in China, which is where the best Silk still comes from. The legend of its discovery is rather charming. It is said that the Empress Lei-Tzu was enjoying her afternoon tea one day when a silk cocoon dropped from a branch above her into her tea. A bit like Sir Isaac Newton and the apple from the tree, perhaps?  As she lifted it out, she saw the beauty of the shimmering thread and commanded her servants to weave it. And so began the history of Silk. 

This myth, for me, demonstrates the wonder of Silk and how we create stories to try and explain what it is we do not understand. This is especially the case with Silk, which is woven into the history of China. Another lovely illustration of the mythology of Silk is this: (one of my favourites)

The number 8 is lucky in Chinese culture, largely because (when turned on its side) it is also the symbol for infinity. The silkworm, when producing its silk, moves its head to spin in the same shape as the 8. So for that reason too, Silk is revered by the Chinese and the number 8 brings good fortune. 

Myth or not, what is true is that the Chinese guarded the secret of Silk for centuries under pain of death for anyone sharing knowledge of its production. It was reserved exclusively for the Imperial Court and it was only from about 1050 BC that there is evidence of Silk being traded abroad when Silk was found interred with a Mummy in Egypt. 

The Romans were so beguiled by Silk that they called the Chinese the ‘Seres’ people, the Latin word for Silk. Silk is said to have played a part in the downfall of the Roman Empire because it was so popular the Empire nearly bankrupted itself to satisfy the demand for it. Attempts to ban Roman citizens from buying Silk on the grounds that it was decadent and immoral proved completely fruitless and probably served to increase demand for it. At that time, it was thought that Silk was a crop, to be grown and harvested! I am quite sure that the mystery helped its allure.

(No doubt they preferred the Silk for the magnificent drape that a good toga requires, as I am sure you will all appreciate)

As you know, Silk was so highly prized and desired, that the ancient network of trade routes linking East with West was named after it. It was one of the most prized commodities in the ancient world and ranked with gold and silver for centuries. This trade is what really opened the world up, as people shared ideas and religions and foods as well as the Silk and the spices. 

The Old Silk Road:

Eventually, the secret of Silk production got out (apparently the smuggling of silkworms from China to Byzantium by two monks in 552 AD under the orders of the Emperor Justinian is one of the first examples of industrial espionage) and from then on, sericulture spread throughout Asia and Greece and from there to Western Europe.

Wherever Silk went, there followed obsession. King James I was so determined that England produce her own Silk, he encouraged the planting of mulberry trees and the raising of silkworms and even planted several acres of mulberry trees where Buckingham Palace now stands. Unfortunately our climate doesn’t suit the delicate silkworm, and anyway, the wrong type of mulberry trees were planted...

Silk, though ancient and well-studied, is still a bit of a mystery to us, and to scientists. It continues to be relevant to the world as it gathers brownie points for sustainability, strength, and versatility, for textiles and in medicine and skincare. 

It really is the most incredible fabric, we are sure you’ll agree.