Silk is a natural protein fiber that can be woven into textiles. It is obtained from the cocoon of the silkworm larva, in the process known as sericulture. The shimmering appearance for which it is prized comes from the fibres triangular prism-like structure, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles.
The coveted secret of silkworm cultivation began 5000 years ago in China. The credit of all this goes to a Chinese Empress Xi Ling-Shi, the 14-year-old wife of Chinas third emperor, Huangdi (Huang-Ti). One day, as she was making tea in the palace garden, Xilingji accidentally dropped a silkworm cocoon into a cup of hot water and discovered that the silk fiber could be loosened and unwound. By twisting together fibers from several cocoons, she made a thread that was strong enough to be woven into cloth.
No one is certain how much of this delightful story is true, but the practice of sericulture (rearing silkworms for the production of raw silk) is certainly older than recorded history. For centuries, it was the Chinese nobilitys most closely guarded secret. Only members of the royal family were permitted to wear garments made of silk. But as the laws regulating sericulture were gradually relaxed, explorers and traders began to acquire enough samples of the fabric to create a demand for it in the West.
Though first reserved for the Emperors of China, its use spread gradually through Chinese culture both geographically and socially. The Chinese used silk since the 27th century B.C. During the Roman Empire, silk was sold for its weight in gold. The Chinese domesticated silk worms and fed them with mulberry leaves. They unwound the silkworms cocoons to produce long strands of silk fiber.
Farm women in China at that period were supposed to raise such silkworms as one of their chores. Silk was used in China and exported along the Silk Road (the ancient trade route linking China and the Roman Empire). This trade brought China great wealth, but the Chinese did not give away the secret on how silk was formed.
During the eleventh century European traders stole several eggs and seeds of the mulberry tree and began rearing silkworms in Europe. Christian monks finally broke Chinas monopoly of the silk production by smuggling silkworm eggs out of the country, and soon other countries started to produce their own silk.
Sericulture was introduced into the Southern United States in colonial times, but the climate was not compatible with cultivation.
Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants, because of its texture and lustre. Because of the high demand for the fabric, silk was one of the staples of international trade prior to industrialization.
Production of silk
Silkworms are cultivated and fed with mulberry leaves. Some of these eggs are hatched by artificial means such as an incubator, and in the olden times, the people carried it close to their bodies so that it would remain warm.
Silkworms that feed on smaller, domestic tree leaves produce the finer silk, while silkworms that have fed on oak leaves produce the coarser silk. From the time they hatch to the time they start to spin cocoons, they are very carefully tended to. Noise is believed to affect the process, thus the cultivators try not to startle the silkworms.
Their cocoons are spun from the tops of loose straw. It will be completed in two to three days time. The cultivators then gather the cocoons and the chrysales are killed by heating and drying the cocoons.
In the olden days, they were packed with leaves and salt in a jar, and then buried in the ground, or else other insects might bite holes in it. Modern machines and modern methods can be used to produce silk but the old-fashioned hand-reels and looms can also produce equally beautiful silk.
Perhaps the first evidence of the silk trade is that of an Egyptian mummy of 1070 BC. In subsequent centuries, the silk trade reached as far as the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. This trade was so extensive that the major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia came to be known as the Silk Road.
The Emperors of China strove to keep the knowledge of sericulture secret from other countries, in order to maintain the Chinese monopoly on its production. This effort at secrecy had mixed success. Sericulture reached Korea around 200 BC with Chinese settlers, about the first half of the 1st century AD in Khotan, and by 300 AD the practice had been established in India. Although the Roman Empire knew of and traded in silk, the secret was only to reach Europe around 550 AD, via the Byzantine Empire. Legend has it that the monks working for the emperor Justinian were the first to bring silkworm eggs to Constantinople in hollow canes. The Byzantines were equally secretive, and for many centuries the weaving and trading of silk fabric was a strict imperial monopoly; all top-quality looms and weavers were located inside the Palace complex in Constantinople and the cloth produced was used in imperial robes or in diplomacy, as gifts to foreign dignitaries. The remainder was sold at exorbitant prices.
Today, silk is cultivated in Japan, China, Spain, France, and Italy, although artificial fibers have replaced the use of silk in much of the textile industry. The silk industry has a commercial value of $200-$500 million annually. One cocoon is made of a single thread about 914 meters long. About 3000 cocoons are needed to make a pound of silk.
To gather silk from cocoons, boil intact cocoons for five minutes in water turning them gently. Remove them from water. And using a dissecting needle or similar tool, begin to pick up strands. When you find a single strand that comes off easily, wind the silk onto a pencil. Several of these strands are combined to make a thread.
Wild Silks are produced by a number of undomesticated silkworms. Aside from differences in colours and textures, they all differ in one major respect from the domesticated varieties. The cocoons, which are gathered in the wild, have usually already been chewed through by the pupa or caterpillar ("silkworm") before the cocoons are gathered and thus the single thread which makes up the cocoon has been cut into shorter lengths.A variety of wild silks have been known and used in China, India and Europe from early times, although the scale of production has always been far smaller than that of cultivated silks.
Wild silks are produced by caterpillars other than the mulberry silkworm (Bombyx mori). The term "wild" implies that these silkworms are not capable of being domesticated and artificially cultivated like the mulberry worms. Commercially reared silkworms are killed before the pupae emerge by dipping them in boiling water or they are killed with a needle, thus allowing the whole cocoon to be unravelled as one continuous thread. This allows a much stronger cloth to be woven from the silk. Wild silks also tend to be more difficult to dye than silk from the cultivated silkworm. There is ample evidence that small quantities of wild silk were already being produced in the Mediterranean and Middle East by the time the superior, and stronger, cultivated silk from China began to be imported.
The beautiful and expensive golden-coloured "wild" silk called "Muga" is produced only in the Brahmaputra Valley - mainly Assam and adjoining parts ofBurma. This silk has always been highly prized - not only for its beautiful natural golden sheen, which actually improves with aging and washing - but for the fact that it is the strongest natural fibre known. Garments made of it outlast those made of ordinary silk - commonly lasting fifty years or more.
In addition, it absorbs moisture better than ordinary silk and is, therefore, more comfortable to wear. Nowadays, it is mainly sought after for the highest quality saries given as presents to brides in India.
Silk in India
Today Varanasi is one of the most important silk-weaving centers in India. Originally it was known for its cotton weaves. Today no other center can match the standards set by Varanasi. It has perfectly specialized the art of weaving and there is no style of weaving, which it cannot reproduce.
A specialty of the area is the heavy gold brocade, which has an extra weft of rich gold thread running right across the warp threads, with the motifs picked up in silk thread and jewel-like colors worked in the style of meenakari, a term used for gold enamel jewellery and there it is applied to woven gold brocades where the rich gold patterns are enlivened by introducing silk threads very much like richly colored enamel designs worked in gold.
The all-over gold brocade was known as kimkhab, which has been interpreted to mean no less than a dream, generally carried patterns of jal, a trellis, enclosing stylized buta, or traditional circular roundel, known as ashrafi. Besides, there are the more complicated all-over patterns of shikargah, the hunting scene. The complex pattern would often depict a flowing creeper intermingling with animals, birds and elephants with howdahs, carrying a hunting party. These designs can only be prepared by master jala workers, the designer and creators of the master pattern, since they successfully camouflage the repeat in the pattern.
Another variety of gold cloth was the fine tissue, which had warp and weft of gold thread, with patterns worked in silk and gold thread. Often the background material would be woven in silver thread and the patterns in gold or vice-versa. These were known as Ganga-Yamuna: Ganga standing for the gold thread and Yamuna for the silver.
Varanasi has also woven for the past many years the varying requirements of different countries. Rich brocades, with Central Asian designs and even Tibetian character signifying happiness and long life, known as gyasar, were woven by particular families of weavers of the Tibetian market.
Special weaves were also made by a few weaver families for South East Asia and Sri Lanka. Here again they use the color and designs adopted from the traditions of that area. The most exotic brocades, however, are those woven for Saudi Arabian royalty with large bold patterns of flowers and the sun.
Another important weave is the tissue or the gold-and-silver lame. Sashes and scarves of tissue used to be exported from Varanasi to other parts of India and even abroad.
Examples of this work dating back to the seventeenth century have been found in some museums and churches.
The silk brocades of Varanasi are no less rich and varied. The pure silk brocades use a variety of silk threads for creating numerous complicated patterns. The Amru silk brocades of Varanasi are famous. The Amru sarees are the butider once enclosed by a border and a heavy pallu of flowering bushes or the kalga, the flowing mango pattern.
The Baluchar technique of weaving brocaded with untwisted silk thread was developed in the Murshidabad district of West Bangal. It is perhaps the only form of weaving where the patterns are based on miniature paintings. The woven scenes are framed and sometimes depict a woman riding a horse, or a traditionally dressed man seated against a large cushion smoking a huqqa, with a maid -servant offering him a wine, or the scene of a boat arriving at a harbor and Portuguese faces mingling with the Indians. There is also depiction of lovers seated in a pleasure boat with two love birds above. The outline appears to be made from a khaka, the outline drawings, on which miniatures were based. The sarees appears to tell the story of past era.
The high cost of weaving the fabric and lack of patronage led to the decline of this technique in West Bangal. The last of the weavers of the Baluchari saree, Dhrub Raj was an old man. In 1890 with his death, the tradition also died. Subsequently, it was successfully revived by the Handicrafts Board at Varanasi in 1956 by a great master designer Ali Hassan. Although West Bangal began to produce Baluchar in Murshidabad, the Varanasi weavers were weaving Baluchari sarees so well that the West Bengal sarees could not complete with them either in texture or in quality. They continue to be woven in Varanasi by Ali Hasans great-grandson, Naseem, who is a brilliant young man.
Gujarat was an important brocade center with a distinctive style of its own. It is believed that the extra weft brocade began in Gujarat with the help of weavers who migrated from Central Asia. Here the extra weft patterns were woven with the use of the twill weave. The design traditions were based on the Western Indian style of painting, and figurative design was common. Some of the oldest silk brocades carry riders on horseback. Brocaded ghaghras, dating to the beginning of this century, carry stylized forms of dancing woven, mingling with peacocks, or women holding fans in their hands, or complicated lotus patterns. Today only few centers in North Gujarat continued this tradition. Some weaving continue to be done in Ridrol in the Mehsana district and in Jamnagar in Saurashtra.
Besides weaving material for ghagras, long skirts, sarees, ordhnis, and cholis, a variety of objects for religious purposes were also woven. These were the gaumukhi, which covered the hand of the devotee carrying his rosary. They carried motifs of the sun, the swastika, the symbol of Ganesha, and sometimes the sacred-cow associated with Krishna. Also small torans were made depicting scene from Krishna Leela. These were possibly meant to be hung outside the family temples. Another special item produced was the Nathdwara pechwai, depicting Shrinathji, meant to be hung behind the image.
One of the most exquisite techniques combining gold and silk is known as Paithani, after the name of the village where it survived. The technique is most complex. The patterns are created by non-continuous colored threads wrapped on bamboo needles, which are woven in to the warp only where a particular color is needed and then interlocked with the thread of the next color. This technique is known as the tapestry technique. This was also revived in Yeola in Maharashtra.
The silk sarees of southern India are a class by themselves. They use heavy Iustrous silk and broad borders and elaborate pallus, with contrasting color combinations, which result in harmonious color blends. Traditionally the patterning is part of the woven fabric and not an extra weft. The checks and stripes are woven into the warp and weft. The delicate buds known as mallimogu, jasmine buds, form a part of the weave itself and accentuate the texture, and woven into the body of the saree in contrasted colors.
Kancheepuram, Tanjore and Kumbakonam, which are the important pilgrim centers, are also important textile centers of Tamil Nadu. Sangarneddy and Dharmaswaram in Andhra Pradesh, Kolegal and Molkalmoru in Mysore are also famous silk-weaving centers.
Tanjore specialized in weaving the all over gold-work sarees used for weddings and for offering to temples. These carried rich broad borders in gold work and pallus with patterns derived from temple frieze. The youli, the stylized lion form, the hamsa, swan, and the shardul, tiger were common motifs.
Molkalmoru in Mysore had its own distinctive tradition of simple ikat weave, combined with a rich silk or gold border carrying stylized motifs of parrots. The ikat was always in white.
Silk In Europe
Vanetian merchants traded extensively in silk and encouraged silk growers to settle in Italy. By the 13th century Italian silk was a significant source of trade. Italian silk was so popular in Europe that Francis I of France invited Italian silkmakers to France to create a French silk industry, especially in Lyon. The French Revolution interrupted production before Napoleon took power.
Silk In America
James I of England introduced silk growing to the American colonies around 1619, ostensibly to discourage tobacco planting. Only the Shakers in Kentucky adopted the practice. In the 1800s a new attempt at a silk industry began with European-born workers in Paterson, New Jersey, and the city became a US silk centre, although Japanese imports were still more important.
World War II interrupted the silk trade from Japan. Silk prices increased dramatically and US industry begun to look for substitutes, which led to the use of synthetics like nylon. Synthetic silks have also been made from lyocell, a type of cellulose fibre, and are often difficult to distinguish from real silk.
In Islamic law, there is a prohibition upon Muslim men from wearing silk (as well as gold). While the command is given in the Quran without justification, many jurists believe the reasoning behind the prohibition lies in avoiding clothing for men that can be feminine or extravagant and luxurious.
Silk has recently come under fire from animal rights activists who maintain that the common practice of boiling silkworms alive in their cocoons is cruel.
Care of your silk garment
It is best to dry clean your silk garment either by individual or bulk method, in order to maintain the characteristic of the silk.
Dry clean: Sending it to the dry cleaners may be done but make sure that you inform the dry cleaner that your garment is made of silk.
- Make sure you wash in cool water.
- Use a small amount of soap or mild detergent to wash the silk.
- After washing it, rinse in cold water.
- Hang it or lay it flat in a shaded area to dry.
- If pressing is needed, use an all cotton iron board cover, a low or moderate steam setting, and press on the wrong side of the fabric while ironing.
- To keep white silk white, add peroxide and ammonia to the wash.
- Do not use bleach or any washing detergent with bleach
- To remove yellow from white silk, add a few teaspoons of white vinegar to the wash.
Properties of the silk
- It is versatile and very comfortable.
- It absorbs moisture.
- It is cool to wear in the summer yet warm to wear in winter.
- It can be easily dyed.
- It retains its shape and is relatively smooth.
- It has a poor resistance to sunlight exposure.
- It is the strongest natural fiber and is lustrous.
Silk is used to make blouses, dresses, scarves, pants and ties. It can also be made into curtains, draperies, cushion covers and sofa covers. In addition to this, silk is also used for items like parachutes, bicycle tires, comforter filling and artillary gunpowder bags.
Early bulletproof vests were also made from silk in the era of blackpowder weapons until roughly World War I. Silk undergoes a special manufacturing process to make it adequate for its use in surgery as non-absorbable sutures. Chinese doctors have also used it to make prosthetic arteries. Silk cloth is also used as a material to write on.