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The Legend:

Sericulture or silk production has a long and colourful history unknown to most people. Chinese legend gives the title of ‘Goddess of Silk’ to Yuen Fei (also known as His Ling Shi), wife of the mythical Yellow Emporer, who was said to have ruled China in about 3000 BC. She accidently dropped a cocoon in her cup of steaming china tea and saw a single strand unwind in a continuous thread.

Origins of Silk:

A group of ribbons and threads and woven fragments dated about 3000 BC have been found in the Zhejiang province of China. More recent archeological finds include a small ivory cup carved with a silkworm design and thought to be 6000 to 7000 years old with spinning tools, silk thread and fabric fragments from sites along the lower Yangzi River reveal the origins of sericulture to be even earlier.

The silkworm:

There are many indigenous varieties of wild silk moths found in a number of different countries, however the key to understanding the great mystery and magic of silk and Chinas domination of its production lies with one species, the blind, flightless moth, Bombyx mori. It lays 500 or more eggs in four to six days and dies soon after. The eggs are like pinpoints, one hundred of them weighs only one gram. From one ounce of eggs come about 30,000 worms which eat a ton of mulberry leaves and produce twelve pounds of raw silk during their life time.

The Secret of Sericulture:

Producing silk is a lengthy process and demands constant close attention. To produce high quality silk , there are two conditions which need to be fulfilled; preventing the moth from hatching out and perfecting the diet on which the silkworms should feed. Chinese developed secret ways for both. The eggs must be kept at 65 degrees F, increasing to 77 degrees at which point they hatch. Chinese peasants used to carry the eggs next to their bodies or put them between blankets beneath their beds to keep them warm. After the eggs hatch, the baby worms feed day and night on hand picked and chopped mulberry leaves until they are very fat. A fixed temperature has to be maintained throughout. Thousands of feeding worms are kept on trays stacked one on top of another. A roomful of munching worms sounds like heavy rain falling on the roof. The newly hatched silkworm multiplies its weight 10,000 times within a month, changing colour and shedding its whitish-grey skin several times.

The silkworms feed until they have stored up enough energy to enter the cocoon stage. Whilst they are growing they have to be protected from loud noises, drafts, strong odours such as those of fish and meat and even sweat. When it is time to build their cocoons, the silkworms produce a jelly-like substance in their silk glands, which hardens when it comes into contact with air. Silk worms spend three or four days spinning a cocoon around themselves until they look like puffy white balls.

After eight or nine days in a warm, dry place the cocoons are ready. First they are steamed or baked to kill the worms or pupas. The cocoons are then dipped into hot water to loosen the tightly woven filaments. These filaments are unwound onto a spool. Each cocoon is made up of a filament between 600 and 900 meters long! Between five and eight of these super-fine filaments are twisted together to make one thread.

In the past reeling silk and spinning were always considered household duties for women, while weaving and embroidery were carried out in workshops as well as the home. By the 5th century BC, at least six Chinese provinces were producing silk. The technique and process of sericulture were guarded secrets and closely controlled by the Chinese authorities. Attempts to reveal the secrets or smuggle the silkworm eggs or cocoons outside of China would be punished by death.

The Silk Road:

Silk was carried by camel trains along the Silk Road, opened in the 2nd century BC, which stretched 4000 miles through South Asia and the Middle east. At different points along the way silk was exchanged so increasing its value many thousands of times until it found its way to Europe. No one knew where the Silk Road started until Maco Polo with his father and uncle made the journey along the whole route into the interior of China.

How the secret got out:

In spite of their secrecy, however, Sericulture reached Korea around 200 BC and India shortly after in 300 AD. Then around 550 AD, two Nestorian monks appeared at the Byzantine Emperor, Justinians court with silkworm eggs hidden in their hollow bamboo staves. (One of the earliest known examples of industrial espionage!) The Byzantine church and state created imperial workshops, monopolizing production and keeping the secret to themselves. However, they could not produce the high-quality silk textures woven in China and trade along the Silk Road continued as before. By the sixth century the Persians, too, had mastered the art of silk weaving, developing their own rich patterns and techniques. However, in the 7th century, the Arabs conquered the Persians, capturing their magnificent silks in the process and helped to spread sericulture and silk weaving as they spread victoriously through Africa, Sicily and Spain. It was only in the 13th century, when Marco Polo’s journey along the length of the Silk Road to the interior of China to meet up with the Mongol Emperor, Kublai Khan, that Italy began silk production with the introduction of 2000 skilled silk weavers from Constantinople.

The House of Silk Emporium:

The House of Silk Emporium brings silk products to you from China so that, like the Emperors of China, you can look and feel as special as you are.