March 2, 2022
THE HISTORY OF SILK: AN ENCHANTING FACET OF HUMAN CULTURE FOR MORE THAN 6 CENTURIES
The presence of silk in fashion has been held in high esteem for centuries. First discovered thousands of years ago in Ancient China, the story of silk is one woven initially with secrets in an attempt to monopolise this delicate fabric.
The Legend of Silk
Legend has it that silk was first discovered by Lady Hsi Ling Shih around 3,000 BC in China. However, recent archaeological studies suggest that the presence of silk in society is even older, with the original discovery of the fabric made along the Yangtze River as early as 7,000 BC.
China was initially keen on keeping the production of silk a secret, with hopes of gaining great wealth from the trade of such a fine good. This ancient society knew that the finest silk was produced by feeding the silkworms a very specific diet consisting of mulberry leaves. Coupling this knowledge with developments in the farming of silkworms (a process known as sericulture), China successfully held the monopoly on silk for nearly 3,000 years.
The Silk Road, which brought silk and other exotic goods to neighbouring countries, was dominated by a demand for Chinese silk, granting China’s wish – the empire’s economy boomed with profits from silk trades, and they had the Goddess of Silk to thank.
As the legend goes, Lady Hsi Ling Shih first discovered silk and its gleaming threads when a silkworm cocoon fell into her cup of tea. Upon its unravelling, the cocoon revealed a single thread of silk, which inspired the empress to develop the cultivation of silkworms, and eventually the loom and reel.
Eventually landing a permanent place in the wardrobes of royalty throughout the ancient East, it wasn’t long before the demand for silk rose steeply, and the secret was out. By the second century BC, India was cultivating silk of its own to fill the wardrobes of the Persian empire.
With the demand for silk only continuing to increase over time, rulers outside of China were keen to earn a bit of the wealth, motivating them to find creative ways of smuggling silkworms into their countries. By the year 440 CE, a Chinese princess was prompted to hide the eggs of silkworms in her elaborate hairpiece in order to share them with her royal Iranian boyfriend – thus gifting silk cultivation to Iran. Later, around 550 CE, two monks were convinced to hide silkworms in their bamboo canes, establishing the first sericulture practices in Turkey.
Silk Throughout the Years
Empires throughout the ages each had their own way of donning this beautiful fabric. From the wide, red silken robes of the kingdoms of Korea in 632 to Indira Devi, an Indian princess who established the trend of wearing silk chiffon saris in the late nineteenth century, silk has been the fabric of choice for millennia, in part because of the way it so gracefully complements a person’s body shape.
Perhaps the most notable representation of silk in modern times came from the American actress Grace Kelly. She lived a true fairy tale when she married Prince Rainier III in 1956, becoming the princess of Monaco. Her way of making a statement with silk trended when she chose to heal her broken arm in style, using a printed silken scarf as a sling.
Though most fashion waxes and wanes over time, silk has remained a popular material throughout the years and is perhaps most well-known for its lustrous sheen. Incredibly cooling when worn in the summer, yet warm and insulating in the winter, silk is a worthy staple in anyone’s wardrobe. Whether you’d rather sport a silk-lined coat or a flowing silken dress, wear silk to make a statement and experience a material that’s been well-loved throughout the ages.