Sierra Trading Post Explores: Silk

Silk is the epitome of a fabric legend. When you touch a silk shirt, silk underwear or a silk scarf, you're touching a fabric that carries with it millennia of complicated history, folklore and enigmatic creation.

Sierra Trading Post Explores Silk 2 Flickr Photo Courtesy J E Theriot

Silk is a naturally breathable, moisture wicking and famously luxurious fabric. It is often used to make high-performance silk base layers, silk underwear, lightweight silk shirts, sweaters, scarves and other luxury clothing.  Given its rich history — from Neolithic silk production to the Silk Road — and the generally unknown details of how it's made, silk is the perfect subject for "Sierra Trading Post Explores".

How is Silk Made?

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Sericulture (the production of silk) involves the cultivation of silkworms with the purpose of producing silk fabric. In order to produce enough silk fabric for a viable silk trade, you need billions of silkworms, Mulberry leaves and a safe place for the silkworms to make their cocoons.

Sierra Trading Post Explores Silk 4 Flickr Photo Courtesy Nikita

The process of silk starts with a Bombyx mori moth laying eggs that will become silkworms. These silkworms dine on Mulberry leaves for weeks, and then weave their cocoons of a sticky saliva that solidifies when it comes into contact with the air. Each cocoon is made of nearly a mile of silk filament, which will be harvested and turned into silk fabric.

Sierra Trading Post Explores Silk 5 Flickr Photo Courtesy Tom Thai

The harvesting of the silk filament is the tricky part. If the Bombyx mori pupae is allowed to hatch from the cocoon as a moth, it will destroy the thread. So, sadly, the process of making silk usually involves killing the pupae once it is done creating its cocoon. This harvesting technique is why silk is not a vegan-friendly fabric. Cocoons are either boiled in water or blasted with steam to kill the pupae and soften the filament so that it can be unwound and twisted with other filaments in order to create a thread that can be used for weaving or knitting. There is some research being done on a more humane way to harvest silk, but a viable alternative process has yet to be developed.

A Brief History of Silk

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There's archeological evidence that silk was produced in China's Yellow River basin as early as the Neolithic Yangshao period (c. 5000 - c. 3000 BC). So, as you might imagine, I'll have to gloss over the vast majority of the history of silk. However, even the basic history of silk is a compelling one — full of riches, war and mystery. Reading about the history of silk made me realize just how ancient, revered and prized of a commodity it truly is.

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The cultivation of silk was a strictly kept secret in ancient Chinese culture for thousands of years. At first, the silk itself was reserved for royalty. Over time, silk was used for more general use, like tunics, musical instruments, fishing lines and bowstrings, and became a cornerstone of the Chinese economy.

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The lucrative Chinese silk trade was carried out along "The Silk Road" from around 114 BC through 1450 AD. For over a thousand years, the great civilizations of Rome and China used the Silk Road to trade goods as well as ideas. Silk traveled westward along the 4,000 mile-long road, and other goods, like art wool, gold and spices, came eastward. The Silk Road is often attributed for the spread of Christianity and Buddhism to China, which proves that its cultural impact was huge. But, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire came the demise of the Silk Road in the 1450s.

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Around the middle of the 6th century, the secret of silk escaped China when silkworm eggs were smuggled out of central Asia and brought to the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I.  As a result, the silk trade flourished in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) for about a thousand years, effectively breaking the Chinese silk monopoly. C
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