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What is Silk? - The History of Silk Weaving and Fabric

What is Silk? - The History of Silk Weaving and Fabric

Silk is one of the most ancient fabrics known to humanity. According to the historical records, the material first originated in China associated with it, a royal tale of discovery. It was from here that the fabric got a head start after which it unfolded to Korea, Japan, Persia, and other parts via the Silk Route (Silk Road).


Until the 13th century, the fabric was considered only for royal and the wealthy. For several years, Italy remained the European leader of silk until France promoted its silk weaving during the 17th century.


Origin of Silk

Silk existed in China before the mid of the 3rd millennium BC during which just 1,000 yards, or 1 km, of thread from a silkworm’s cocoon, was reeled, spun, and woven. It became a significant contributor to the rural economy of the nation.

As per a legend, the wife of the legendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi discovered silk in 27th century BC as a woven fibre. With the observation of unravelling cocoon that fell from a mulberry tree into her cup of tea, the empress discovered the process of obtaining shimmering threads. She soon came up with the cultivation of worms, sericulture, and conceived the reel and loom. Since then, for almost three millennia, China enjoyed the global monopoly for producing silk.



The Growth of Silk Production in China

The Song dynasty accomplished the art of kesi, a magnificent tapestry of silk woven with a needle acting as a shuttle on a small loom. Records state that the artwork was found by the Central Asia’s Sogdians, which was enhanced by the Uighurs before Chinese went for it. Kesi stands for cut silk and is derived from the perpendicular space between colourful areas, caused by the threads not extending across the width.


During Han regime, silk weaving was the primary industry and chief export product. Early Han textiles found from Mawangdui act as the testimony of weaving development in the form of brocade, damasks, and embroidery. The next remains are usually damasks, which are finely woven with colourful patterns repeating at every 2 inches or 5 cm.


Silk Secret Revealed to the World

Almost 2200 years ago, in 200 BC, several Chinese people migrated to Korea and revealed silk production in that country. From here, the secret gradually was revealed throughout Asia. It also reached the West via various channels. In almost next 500 years, sericulture was established in India after which it started trading with Persians who developed their rich techniques in the 12th century AD.


In 550 AD, the Byzantine Emperor named Justinian got the first silkworm eggs from two Nestorian monks who have hidden them in their concave bamboo staves. The Byzantine state and church introduced imperial workshops and kept the secret to themselves due to which the silk industry boomed in the Middle East.



In the 7th century, the Arabs took over the Persians and spread sericulture throughout their victorious territories of Spain, Sicily, and Africa. Then the Mongol regime’s Crusaders and Marco Polo’s China trips resulted in commercial exchanges between the West and East. This led to a silk industry in Italy in the early 12th century.


During the regime of second Crusades in the 13th century, Italy started producing silk with the help of thousands of skilled silk weavers from the present Istanbul region (former Constantinople). Finally, the art of creating silk was spread into Europe.


The Improvement in Silk Technology before Industrial Revolution

According to Chinese sources, a machine was used in 1090 to unravel cocoons that were positioned in a big hot water basin. Silk was woven onto a big spool due to its back and fro motion. While not much is known about the Chinese spinning techniques, it is recorded that a spinning wheel moved by hand was popular at the start of the Christian era. A silk spinning machine driven with a water wheel was popular in the 14th century.


According to the compilations of the 13th century, Chinese looms were superior of all. It states of two loom types due to which the worker’s arms were set free. First is the Eurasian drawloom and second is the East Asian pedal loom. Since the 2nd century BC, silk brocades were formed by using four-shafted looms.


The Middle Era witnessed the introduction of many techniques for manufacturing silk. While the period from 10th to 12th century saw minor changes, the 13th century marked the time of big twists. In its beginning, an ancient form of milling the silk threads had its hold in the industry. Then, several types of devices were introduced, whose complex structures were invented in the 14th century.


The earliest European spinning wheel together with Bobbins and warping machines boosted the production of silk. It is believed that the toothed warper was allowing a more uniform and a longer warp was first introduced by the silk industry.


The Black Death incidence in end of 14th century shifted the trend towards more economical techniques. In the silk industry, water-driven mills increased in the spread and the loom set up by Jean le Calabrais was universally used by the 15th century.


Silk production also flourished in England in 1680s due to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes that forced several skilled French weavers and experts to migrate to England to flee religious persecution. Likewise, silk spread to numerous nations including Mexico in 1522.


The Improvement in Silk Technology during Industrial Revolution

During the 17th and 18th centuries, further growth started for simplifying and standardising silk manufacture, most notably in the Lyon, France. In 1725 Basile Bouchon was believed to have created the first semi-automated weaving loom. In 1728, this loom was later refined by his assistant Jean Baptiste Falcon. In 1745 these designs were again improved upon to create the first fully automated weaving loom by Jacques de Vaucanson before being again enhanced by Joseph-Marie Jacquard and introduced the radical Jacquard weaving loom that processed a series of punched cards in the precise sequence.


Basile Bouchon's Semi-automated Loom 1725, on display at CNAM, Paris, France


These cards were a direct antecedent to the modern computer. Since 1801, embroidery was precisely mechanised because of the highly efficient Jacquard loom that also paved the way for mass production of intricate designs.


However, in the 19th century, the rise in the price of cocoons along with the fall in importance of silk in bourgeoisie garments resulted in the decline of the European silk industry. However, the launch of the Suez Canal and the shortage of silk in France brought down the cost of importing Asian silk, mainly from Japan and China.


Urbanisation in Europe forced several Italian and French skilled men to leave silk production for profitable factory jobs. Further, the outbreak of silkworm diseases made silk-rearing a reduced source of income.


After Industrial Revolution

After the fall of silk in Europe, sericulture’s modernisation in Japan made it the leading producer. In the early 20th century, quick mechanisation made Japan the producer of 60% of the planet’s raw silk. While Italy came up from the crisis, France was stuck.


However, during the Second World War, the scene soon changed! Silk supplies were stopped from Japan due to which the Western world had to come up with substitutes such as nylon and other synthetic fibres.


Even post-war, silk remained a luxury product. Japan restored itself to be the leading exporter of silk, via its improvements in reeling and inspection technology. This continued until the 1970s after which China gained back its prominent position, while Japan saw a decline due to the increasing importance of synthetic materials.


Today, India, Japan, USSR, Korea, Thailand, China, and Brazil are leading producers of silk.