History of silk, from China to the world

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The history of silk, from its origins in China to the Silk Road, reaching the point of conquering the whole world

What silk?

Before starting our discussion, it is necessary to specify that silk refers specifically to the filamentous layer produced by the pupa of the moth Bombyx mori, but in nature other types of silk have always been present, produced by very different insects ( although the better known “non-Bombyx mori” silks are still produced by moths); the choice to focus on this silk is specific and is due to some practical reasons which, de facto, have shaped history as we know it today.

A Bombyx mori moth

First of all, these varieties differ in color and uniformity, which made them less suitable for large-scale production since the dawn of time, moreover, Bombyx mori is the only one not to put a mineral layer on its silk, which complicates on a technical level, the extraction of the precious filament; today, thanks to some particular demineralization techniques, this difficulty is almost nothing, but it still complicates their production, transforming them into an extremely rare product in terms of cost and demand.

Silk, Chinese treasure

Having said this, we can finally focus on our history, whose origins are to be found in ancient China. According to the myth, the first to discover silk was Empress Leizu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor, who, as she sat sipping tea near a mulberry tree, saw that a cocoon of Bombyx mori had fallen into her cup who, hit by the hot water, reveals everything, showing the famous fiber. Leaving aside the legend, according to some archaeological findings this filament was used for the first time in the current province of Henan starting from 8500 BC, while the first real cultivation and processing began from around 3600 BC. . Initially seen as a fabric exclusively reserved for the emperors, significantly increasing its value.


Soon silk became a real bargaining chip, so much so that it was used more and more by Chinese emperors to pay officers and compensate citizens, becoming the economic base of the country. Such was the prestige it accumulated, that many nomadic tribes plundered the cities just in search of them, with the emperors who, to satisfy them, donated a part of it as a tribute; not by chance at the Afrasiab site, near today’s Samarkand, there is a large mural in which all the peoples of Asia pay homage to the Sogdian king and the Chinese do it with silk. From that moment on, this fiber was appreciated in every place, so much so that it even appears in the Bible in Ezekiel 16, where it is mentioned among the gifts of God to Jerusalem; this conception of royalty is even found in Egypt, to the point that traces of it were found in one tomb dating back to around 1070 BC. . The Romans discovered it for the first time in Mesopotamia when, fighting with the Parthians, they could not help but notice their magnificent silk banners; however it will be only the conquest of Egypt that will allow him to buy it in quantity, which will often provoke the ire of the Senate, terrified by the idea of seeing so many sesterces scattered in distant lands.

Diffusion in the world

Initially its production was a jealously protected secret, but then, with the passing of centuries and imports, the first factories began to rise also on the Silk Road. According to tradition, the very first country to open a factory was the Kingdom of Khotan, which, in the first century, managed to obtain the precious caterpillars through a marriage with a princess, thus opening the way to a large-scale commercialization, thus putting an end to the Chinese monopoly. Originally the latter mainly dealt with its processing, during which wool, linen or cotton was often added, but then, starting from the first centuries after Christ, a famous and renowned local industry developed. The latter will see its centers in the main centers of the aforementioned Road, with Bukhara and Samarkandwhich will distinguish themselves from the beginning for their particular weaving technique, capable of making this fabric even more thick and resistant.


In the sixth century it will be the Byzantine Empire to want to steal its secrets, so much so that the emperor Justinian organized a real expedition, sending two Nestorians monks to bring in Constantinople the secret of this extraordinary material; when the two men of faith return, after 2 years of travel, the Byzantine capital will become the main production center of the whole Mediterranean. The Byzantines were the first to introduce it in Calabria, with Catanzaro becoming one of the leading centers in this regard; in Sicily it will instead be introduced with the arrival of the Arabs, which they did also in Andalusia. Around the 13th century, Bombyx mori silk will be introduced more and more also in India and in today’s Bangladesh, increasingly replacing local silks, derived from another type of moth, and becoming one of the centers of excellence world. Given the constant demand, many colonial empires tried to impose its production also in the Americas and Africa, also managing to give life to interesting realities, but which never managed to compete with the qualities and quantities seen in China, India and Central Asia. ; the latter (at least until 2005) remain the areas in which the most is produced, with China proving to be the absolute champion, chased by India and Uzbekistan.

The production of silk

The production of silk follows the life cycle of Bombyx mori and starts right from the eggs. The latter are stored at about 4 ° degrees until the mulberry leaves appear, the only food of the silkworm. At that point the caterpillars are born, which will spend all their time eating, until they become much larger and start spinning their cocoon. Once the latter is completed, the breeders take it and throw it into the hot water, in order to kill the pupa and start spinning the silk; some of them are obviously saved in order to allow a new life cycle.


Especially in today’s times, this process is criticized for brutality towards the insect, but there are very practical and technical reasons that make it continue today: once the moth comes out of the cocoon, it breaks it and this means that the silk obtained from it is less both in quality and quantity; moreover, freeing the animal requires at least ten more days of work, which discourages the vast majority of producers. It must be said that, however, especially following the commitment of Gandhi, Ahimsa silk also appeared on the market, the processing of which is characterized by using the cocoon only after the animal has come out of it, adapting to the principles of non-violence preached by the Mahatma; however, due to the disadvantages mentioned above, its production remains niche and limited.

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