The history of silk

For more than 4,000 years the Chinese have considered silk to be the most luxurious of fabrics.

In the beginning, only emperors were allowed to wear it. Later, the privilege was extended to the highest dignitaries. Then, once production techniques improved, its use spread. Silk was considered more valuable than gold and was used as a form of money.

In the second century B.C.E. the Han emperors, besieged by barbarian nomads, needed allies and horses. In order to buy them, China offered her most precious commodity, silk, and decided to open up to commerce and the external world. The Silk Road was born. Thanks to it, China began to disseminate silk in the west. However, the secret of its production was jealously guarded, on pain of death, for more than 2,500 years.

Marco Polo sur la route de la soie, Atlas Catalan, XIVe s., BnF, Paris

So, other peoples invented different theories about the origins of this marvelous fabric. In antiquity, the Romans and Greeks, who greatly admired the fabric, were convinced that the Chinese got the thread from the leaves of trees! This is what Virgil claimed in the "Georgics" as did Pliny the Elder in his "Natural History".

In the 5th century a Chinese princess was engaged to marry the King of Khotan, an oasis in the north of Tibet. Refusing to be deprived of the fabric she so loved, the princess broke the ban on exporting silkworms and hid a cocoon and some mulberry leaves in her headdress so she could give them to her fiancé, the king.

In the middle of the 6th century, it is said that the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian, used some mysterious Christian monks as secret agents who hid some silk worms in their bamboo pilgrims' canes, and brought them back to Constantinople. In this way, Byzantium finally had access to this luxurious material without having to import it from China nor pay the fortunes that were charged by the Persian intermediaries.

L'Empereur Justinien    Ménade en robe de soie, Ie s., Pompéi, Musée national, Naples.   

However, the biggest spreaders of the secret were the Arabs a century later. After having conquered Persia, they developed silkworm breeding around the Mediterranean. But the secrets and techniques of silk production didn't arrive in Western Europe until 700 years later. Italy and then France became the first two producers in Europe. Finally, some Huguenots who had fled from France via Flanders to London established a silk weaving industry in Spitalfields in the 1620s.

Since then, we have known that breeding little caterpillars on mulberry trees can lead to one of the most fascinating, sensuous, and strong natural materials there is, which can be made up into sumptuously rich fabrics. Not forgetting that silk is always softly fascinating…