Silk And Smugglers
CULTURE | September 18, 2019
Silken robes of the Imperial Court of China. Source: (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Silk has always been considered one of the most luxurious fabrics available throughout history. Sericulture, the production of silk, has also one of the strangest forms of fabric manufacturing.
The result is a curious history ranging from international geopolitics to smuggling monks.
Silk has made itself ubiquitous in material culture for its stunning look and comfort. Aside from traditional Japanese kimonos, Indian sari, and fine scarves, silk is used in tennis racquet string, parachutes, and bicycle tires due to its inherent strength.
Silk production was discovered in China. Legend has it that Xi Ling Shi (Leizu), the wife of the mythological Yellow Emperor, discovered silk production and weaving -- she was also referred to as the “silkworm mother,” a title given also to silkworm attendants. In reality, the exact date of the discovery of silk production is unknown, but there is evidence that silk-making has been occurring since 5,000 BC.
Silk is made from the cocoons of the silkworm, Bombyx mori. There are other varieties of the silk moth, but the Bombyx mori is considered the best because its silk is finer or smoother than any other moth. The silkworm feeds exclusively on the leaves of the mulberry tree. The tree, which was originally native to East Asia, allowed the Chinese to maintain a monopoly on silk production for thousands of years. The Chinese so domesticated the silk moth that it cannot survive in the wild. It cannot even fly.
Traditionally, silk production was considered “women’s work” in China. Silkworms were (and are) coddled which included keeping them away from loud noises, resting them on dry mattresses, and tickling them with a feather if they appeared drowsy. A female moth lays about 500 eggs which are kept at a temperature of about 65 degrees which is gradually increased to 77 degrees at which point the eggs hatch. The resulting silkworms then gorge and gorge on mulberry leaves (30,000 worms will devour a ton of leaves). They grow, shedding skin four times before they are ready to create a cocoon and transform into moths. It then takes up to four days for a silkworm to spin a cocoon which the insects bind together with a natural glue called sericin.
After nine days, the cocoons are ready for harvesting. Tenders take the cocoons, steam or bake them to kill the worm inside (this is to prevent the worm from damaging the silk filaments), dip the cocoon into hot water to remove the sericin, and then unravel the silk threads. Amazingly, each filament can be up to 3,000 feet long. The threads are wound on spools which then are woven into the lustrous fabric. Since the filaments are triangular in structure, it reflects light, which gives silk its luster.
The output of silk to silkworm is very small. Thirty thousand worms will only produce twelve pounds of silk filament. It takes 110 cocoons to make a tie and it takes 630 to make a blouse. This provides a good idea of why silk is such an expensive item.
Silk became an emblem of status in China and other cultures throughout the world and silk garments were highly valued. Traditionally, the emperor and his family wore silk robes, white inside and yellow outside -- others were originally forbidden to wear silk. However, over time, important court officials were allowed to wear silk, though they would be harshly punished if they sold the robes. Eventually, silk was used in art and furniture as well -- but it still remained prohibitively expensive for commoners.
Sericulture was a national secret and the Chinese threatened execution to any that gave away the secrets of silk production or tried to smuggle silkworms out of the country. Silk formed a basis for a lucrative trade that spread along the land route that became famously known as the Silk Road. This route went right across Asia and into the Middle East terminating in Damascus.
Despite the ban and threat of harsh punishments, other people wanted to be able to produce their own silk. Chinese immigrants to Korea introduced it there around the year 200 BC. Japan acquired sericulture around 300 AD.
The most interesting story about the spread of silk was from the mid-6th century AD when two or more Nestorian Christian monks had journeyed to China and witnessed silk production. They purportedly told their story to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian at Constantinople who convinced them to smuggle some silkworms out of China.
To give some context, silk in Europe was more expensive than any place in the world due to its distance from the source of production. The product passed through so many hands that costs were driven up astronomically. It was sometimes more valuable than gold and was incredibly treasured. It would be a coup if the Byzantines could break the silk monopolies.
The monks used trade contacts in Central Asia and managed to smuggle silkworm eggs or larvae within the monks’ bamboo canes. It is unclear how, but the Byzantine Empire had either imported mulberry bushes already or smuggled in with the silkworms. Constantinople made its own silk monopoly. By the 14th century, silk manufacture had spread into Western Europe.
Despite the breaking of China’s historic monopoly, the country today still dominates the silk industry. According to statistics from the International Sericultural Commission, China produced 120,000 metric tons of silk in 2018. Its closest competitor, India, produced 35,361 metric tons in the same year. China as of 2019 is also the world’s largest silk consumer with India in second. Silk as a commodity forms only .2% of the world fabric market but in China alone it is a $2.5 billion industry.
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Joseph A. Williams