The Art of Silk
With the flick of a cigarette lighter, a Shanghai merchant sets the fringe of a silk scarf ablaze. My jaw drops as the fringe singes, then disintegrates into a tiny smoldering pile of fine ash. The merchant smiles. Yes, I know the “burn test” is designed to amaze tourists and differentiate authentic silks from plastic-smelling synthetic threads that curl or melt when burned. Still, it’s impressive that even in China—a country known for mass production—some things remain provably real.
Silk-making traces its roots to prehistoric China. For many centuries the Chinese closely guarded the secrets of their laborious craft. As China’s main currency, silk was used to pay taxes, fines, and wages, and even to buy public office. Silk ceremonies played an important role in imperial culture. A host of Buddhist deities associated with silk and silk-making received offerings at special altars reserved for them.
The Silk Road—a well-trodden system of ancient trade routes, many over treacherous terrain—brought silk to Westerners hungry for these exotic luxuries. Many observers consider silk to be one of China’s greatest contributions to world civilization.
The appearance of silk
The earliest evidence of silk was found in China’s Shanxi province where a silk cocoon was found cut in half by a sharp knife, dating back to between 4000 and 3000 BC. The species was identified as bombyx mori, a domesticated silkworm. For 2000 years, silk production was China’s closely guarded secret, but as the silk road developed, the secret was bound to get out. Legend goes that a Persian monk left China with silkworm eggs and cocoons hidden in his bamboo cane, and that was the end of the silken trade secret. Eventually the Chinese lost their secret to the Indians, Koreans, and Japanese, as these cultures discovered how to make silk. for three millennium.
Myths and legends
The writings of Confucius and Chinese tradition recount that, in the 27th century BC, a silk worm’s cocoon fell into the tea cup of the empress Leizu. Wishing to extract it from her drink, the 14-year-old girl began to unroll the thread of the cocoon.
She then had the idea to weave it. Having observed the life of the silk worm on the recommendation of her husband, the Emperor, she began to instruct her entourage in the art of sericulture-raising silk worms.
Because sericulture remained a secret that the Chinese carefully guarded, other peoples invented wildly varying accounts of the source of the incredible fabric. The Romans, great admirers of the cloth, were convinced that the Chinese took the fabric from tree leaves. Quoted in one ancient natural history book: “They weave webs, like spiders, that become a luxurious clothing material for women called silk.”
Producing silk is a lengthy, complex process and because of modern demands, farmers in ZheJiang province only produce silk twice a year-spring and fall. During this time the temperate weather allows the silkworms to thrive without threat of disease or temperature extremes. The raising period is about 30 days, and it originates when our company selects our specially bred silkworm eggs from Suzhou University’s agricultural station. The egg trays are distributed to several hundred families, who take responsibility for raising them until they spin cocoons. After the eggs have hatched, the larvae are spread out on trays to grow. They are fed chopped mulberry leaves as it’s their only source of water so even a few hours without leaves could mean disaster for the silkworms. Thus, silkworms are called “can bao bao”, which means “precious baby silkworms”. It’s like having a newborn baby in the house- the job is 24/7!
After four stages of growth and molting, the silkworms begin to look for a place to spin their cocoon. They don’t spin on demand; timing, cleanliness and temperature have to be handled carefully. Eventually, the worms spin cocoons for several days, each cocoon made up of a strand of silk several thousand feet long. Over two thousand silkworms are needed to produce one pound of silk.
Finally, the farmers deliver their cocoons to the factory where we sort them for quality and color. They’re sent to a processing plant where they’re boiled to loosen the floss, and then combined into sheets of raw silk floss. When the silk floss returns to our facility it’s stored in climate-controlled environment until it’s ready for filling our fluffy duvets and pillows.
During the months of May and September, we offer family-friendly tours of the facility combined with visits to the farmer’s village to see silkworm-raising firsthand. Contact us for more information.