What is the history of silk, interesting facts and applications?

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  • 1 decade ago
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    The History of Silk

    According to Confucius, it was in 2640 B.C. that the Chinese princess Xi Ling Shi was the first to reel a cocoon of silk which, legend also has it, had dropped into her cup of tea. From that historic moment, the Chinese discovered the life cycle of the silk worm and for the next 3000 years were to keep their monopoly of silk.

    In the 3rd Century B.C., Chinese silk fabrics were beginning to find their way throughout the whole of Asia, and were transported overland to the west, and by sea to Japan, in those long itineraries known as the silk roads. It was in Asia that the Romans discovered these wondrous fabrics but they knew nothing of their origin.

    In 552 A.D., the Emperor Justinian sent two monks on a mission to Asia, and they came back to Byzantium with silkworm eggs hidden inside their bamboo walking sticks. (The earliest known example of industrial espionage!). From then on, sericulture spread throughout Asia Minor and Greece.

    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 swept victoriously through Africa, Sicily and Spain. In the 10th Century, Andalusia was Europe's main silk-producing centre.

    Then the Crusaders, the formation of the Mongol Empire, Marco Polo's journeys in China led to the development of commercial exchanges between East and West, and to an ever-increasing use of silk. In this way, Italy started a silk industry as early as the 12th Century.

    In the period 1450-1466, Lyon became a major warehouse for foreign silks, but these imports caused a harmful outflow of capital, and in 1466 Louis XI declared his intention to "introduce the art and craft of making gold and silk fabrics in our city of Lyon".

    Later, in 1536, François I gave Lyon the monopoly of silk imports and trade, thus effectively creating the Lyon silk industry.

    The next significant event in the development of the silk industry was the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The French Huguenots, again subject to religious persecution, fled the country in large numbers. Many Huguenots were expert throwsters and weavers, and they contributed in a very large degree to the development of the silk industry in Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Switzerland.

    Throughout the 18th Century, silk continued to prosper in Europe, Japan and above all in China. European missionaries to China reported that "even the simplest soldiers are dressed in silk".

    In 1804, Jacquard perfected the method of producing figured fabrics, by the use of perforated cards. This was a revolution in weaving techniques and gave a tremendous impetus to the creating of silk industry in Lyon and then in other European countries.

    The 19th Century is characterised by two contradictory trends: increased mechanisation and the consequent increase in productivity in the silk industry, on the one hand, and on the other, the beginning of the decline of European sericulture in the last quarter of the century. From 1872, and the opening of the Suez Canal, raw silk imported from Japan became more competitive, thanks also to Japan's progress in reeling techniques. The rapid industrialisation of European silk-producing countries, notably France, led to transfer of agricultural labour to the cities and towns. Diseases that affected the silkworm, although overcome by Pasteur, made silk-rearing a less reliable source of income. And the first man-made fibres were beginning to make inroads into the markets traditionally reserved for silk.

    The early part of the 20th Century, whereas European sericulture continued its slow decline, the silk industry succeeded in maintaining a strong position through its technical innovations and the development of silk blended with other fibres.

    The next major turning point was to be the Second World War. Raw-silk supplies from Japan were cut off, and the new synthetic fibres captured many of silk's markets, such as stockings and parachutes. This interruption in silk activity in Europe and the United States sounded the death-knell of European sericulture.

    After the war, Japan restored her silk production, with vastly improved reeling, inspection and classification of her raw silk. Japan was to remain the world's biggest producer of raw silk, and practically the only major exporter of raw silk, until the 1970's. Then China, thanks to a remarkable effort of organisation and planning, gradually re-captured her historic position as the world's biggest producer and exporter of raw silk. In 1985, world production of raw silk was about 56000 tonnes (the same as in 1938) of which over 50% were produced in China.

    The other major producers are Japan, India, the USSR, the Republic of Korea and Brazil. Silk is still produced in smaller quantities in many other countries, and several developing countries are studying new sericultural projects.

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    4 years ago

    Chinese history credits the invention of silk fabric to Yuen Fei, the concubine of an Emperor who ruled in 2,600 B.C. Legend has it she dropped a cocoon into hot tea and it unraveled. She, by reason of the discovery, has been deified and is worshipped as the goddess of silk worms. Tusah silk is produced by silkworms that feed on oak leaves. Silk dupioni is produced from 2 silkworms that spin a cocoon together, thus making a strong double-thread silk. Dupioni silk is currently enjoying great popularity. The finest quality silk is made by mulberry silk moth, Bombyx mori, which, of course, feeds on mulberry leaves. The average cocoon contains 300-400 meters of silk. It takes about 5500 silkworms to produce 1 kg (2.2lb) of raw silk! One ounce of eggs produces about 20,000 worms, which consume a ton of mulberry leaves during their lifetime. Silk has been unearthed in the Qianshanyang Village of Huzhou in Zhejiang (China) and has been estimated to have been produced 4700 years ago! The term SHANTUNG (A heavy wild-silk fabric with a rough surface) comes from the region of Shantung in China. The term ORGANDY (crisp cotton or silk fabric) comes from the town named Urgench (in present-day Uzbekistan in Central Asia). It was on the old silk route and was an early market for Chinese silk fabric. Countries all over the world celebrate silk by issuing stamps in honor of sericulture (silk production).

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  • 3 years ago


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  • 1 decade ago

    It was first used by the ancient Chinese around the Shang Dynasty.

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  • 1 decade ago


    Silk, fiber produced as a cocoon covering by the silkworm, and valuable for its use in fine fabrics and textiles. The silkworm, in fact, is not a worm but a caterpillar. Although cocoon coverings of fiber are made by a large number of insects, only those of the mulberry silk moth, Bombyx mori, and a few other moths closely akin to it, are used by the silk industry. The silk of other insects, notably the spider, is used for certain manufacturing purposes, particularly for the cross hairs of telescopes and other optical instruments. For a description of the life and habits of the silk moth, see Silkworm.


    Silk is one of the oldest known textile fibers and, according to Chinese tradition, was used as long ago as the 27th century bc. The silkworm moth was originally a native of China, and for about 30 centuries the gathering and weaving of silk was a secret process, known only to the Chinese. Tradition credits Hsi-ling-shi, the 14-year-old bride of the Emperor Huang Ti, with the discovery of the potential of the cocoon and the invention of the first silk reel. China successfully guarded the secret until ad300, when Japan, and later India, penetrated the secrecy.

    References in the Old Testament indicate that silk was known in biblical times in western Asia, from which it was presumably transplanted to the Greek Islands of the Aegean Sea. The Chinese are believed to have built up a lucrative trade with the West from the days of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century bc. The ancient Persian courts used Chinese silks, unraveled and rewoven into Persian designs. When Darius III, king of Persia, surrendered to Alexander the Great, he was clothed in such silken splendor that Alexander was completely overshadowed and demanded as spoils the equivalent of $7 million in silk. Caravans carried silk on camelback from the heart of Asia to Damascus, Syria, the marketplace at which East and West met. Here silk was traded for Western luxuries, some of which survive in China today. Silk became a valuable commodity in both Greece and Rome. The Roman statesman and general Gaius Julius Caesar restricted silk to his exclusive use and to use for the purple Roman stripes on the togas of officials he favored. Despite this, however, the use of silk in Rome spread in the era of pomp and display.

    Until ad550 all silk woven in Europe was derived from Asiatic sources. About that time, however, the Roman emperor Justinian I sent two Nestorian monks to China, where, at the risk of their lives, they stole mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs, secreted them in their walking staffs, and brought them to Byzantium. Thus, the Chinese and Persian silk monopolies ended. With the spread of Islam, the silkworm came to Sicily and Spain. By the 12th and 13th centuries Italy had become the silk center of the West, but by the 17th century France was challenging Italy's leadership, and the silk looms established in the Lyons area at that time are still famous today for the unique beauty of their weaving.

    Not until after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes did Huguenot weavers from France cross the English Channel and establish silk mills in Spitalfields, a district in the East End of London. The silkworm, however, did not flourish in the English climate, nor has it ever flourished in the United States. The first silk mill in the U.S. was erected in 1810. With the advent of the power loom and with the help of the high tariffs, introduced during the American Civil War, against imported woven goods, the American silk-weaving industry entered a period of growth. Only in China, Japan, and, to a lesser extent, Italy and France was the silk itself produced, however.

    In addition to the true silk from the cultivated mulberry silkworm, a number of so-called wild silks are produced from other related species of insects in the uncultivated state. Tussah silk, for example, is produced from a species that feeds on oak leaves. Douppioni is a silk produced from two silkworms that spin a cocoon together and thus produce a double thread. Special types of weaves, such as shantung and other irregular types, are woven from these types of silk.


    The advent of synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester, which are stronger than silk and lower in price, but do not possess the same hand, or quality, has caused a tremendous reduction in silk production and consumption. World production in 1940 was 59 million kg (130 million lb). By 1950 it had dropped to 19 million kg (42 million lb), but by the mid-1980s had climbed to about 68 million kg (150 million lb).

    In the U.S., silk is still used for clothing, including lightweight suits, coats and slacks, jackets, shirts and neckties, robes, loungewear, underwear, hosiery, and gloves. Silk is also used in lace, napery, draperies, linings, narrow fabrics, and handbags.


    Sericulture, or the raising of silkworms, involves the incubation of the tiny eggs of the silkworm moth until they hatch and become worms. After hatching, the worms are placed under a layer of gauze, on which is spread a layer of finely chopped mulberry leaves. For six weeks, the worms eat almost continuously. At the end of this period, they are ready to spin their cocoons, and branches of trees or shrubs are placed in their rearing houses. The worms climb these branches and make their cocoons in one continuous thread, taking about eight days for the process. The amount of usable silk in each cocoon is small, and about 5500 silkworms are required to produce 1 kg (2.2 lb) of raw silk.

    After the complete cocoons have been gathered, the initial step in silk manufacture is to kill the insects inside them. Thus, the cocoons are first boiled or treated in ovens, killing the insects by heat. The silk fiber is obtained from the cocoons by a delicate process known as reeling, or filature. The cocoons are first heated in boiling water to dissolve the gummy substance that holds the cocoon filament in place. After this heating, the filaments from four to eight cocoons are joined and twisted and are then combined with a number of other similarly twisted filaments to make a thread that is wound on a reel. When each cocoon is unwound, it is replaced with another cocoon. The resulting thread, called raw silk, consists usually of 48 individual silk fibers. The thread is continuous and, unlike the threads spun from other natural fibers such as cotton and wool, is made up of extremely long fibers. Along with cocoons damaged by emerging worms used for breeding stock, the filaments from the coarse outer portion of the cocoon, which is removed by brushing before reeling, and the inner portion of the cocoon, which remains after reeling the raw silk, are mixed to produce a low grade of silk staple that is spun into yarn.

    The next step in the processing of silk is the twisting of one or more threads of the raw silk into a strand sufficiently strong for weaving or knitting. This procedure is called throwing. Four different types of silk thread may thus be produced: organzine, crepe, tram, and thrown singles. Organzine is a thread made by giving the raw-silk thread a preliminary twist in one direction and then twisting two of these threads together in the opposite direction at the rate of about 4 turns/cm (10 turns/in). Crepe is similar to organzine but is twisted to a much greater extent, usually between 16 and 32 turns/cm (40 and 80 turns/in). Tram is made by twisting in only one direction two or more raw-silk threads, with 8 to 12 turns/cm (20 to 30 turns/in). Thrown singles are individual raw-silk threads that are twisted in only one direction, the number of turns depending on the quality of thread desired. In general, organzine thread is used for the warp threads of materials, and tram threads for the weft, or filling. Crepe thread is employed in the weaving of characteristic crinkly fabrics, and single thread is used for sheer fabrics.

    Source(s): Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2005 ©
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