Silk was discovered in China and its secret was kept for over 3,000 years. A symbol of perfection in every historical era, natural silk was never matched by any other artificial fiber. All great civilizations gave silk a place of honor.
The advantages of silk clothes are favored by royals, but they are equally appreciated by modern fashion designers.
Silk was born in a small cup of tea
One of the legends says that silk was discovered by a Chinese princess, named Leizu, a concubine of king Xuanyuan. It is said that she found a silkworm cocoon in her tea cup while sitting under a mulberry tree. She didn't know what it was and she started to pull the tread out of the cocoon. She looked at it in the sunlight and noticed that it was unusually shiny and thin. And then she thought of weaving it. This is the moment when natural silk was discovered. The legend says that from that moment the princess became the goddess of silk in Chinese mythology.
Since then, Chinese have grown these worms, but initially this occupation was reserved only for women of the imperial court. Over time it spread and became and occupation protected by an imperial decree.
For about 3,000 years the Chinese managed to keep it a secret, its disclosure being punishable by death. In the first 1,000 years only the emperor and the highest dignitaries were allowed to wear silk clothes. Chinese peasants were forbidden to use this fabric until the eighteenth century.
From China, silk reached the entire world
At first, Europeans believed that these yarns were made from tree leaves soaked in water. After they found out what it was and figured out the advantages of silk clothes, they decided to learn the technique. Thus, in 552 AD, the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent two monks on a mission to Asia. They returned with silkworm eggs hidden in their bamboo sticks.
However sericulture began to spread in Europe in the seventeenth century, firstly in Sicily and Spain. Until then, Greeks and Romans benefited from the advantages of silk clothes by selling them to kings and noblemen, who were able to purchase them at a high price.
The Silk Road, a famous trading route
The spread of these Chinese fabrics began in the third century BC, first in Asian countries, and then in Europe and Africa. Along with silk, paper, porcelain objects, gunpowder and compasses were shipped to Europe and North Africa. The route they followed was named the "Silk Road".
There is also a sea route that links China to countries with ancient civilizations that goes straight through Malacca and India to East Africa. Marco Polo also arrived to China using this route.
Silk used as currency
Everywhere in the world, in every period in history, silk was considered the queen of fabrics and the advantages of silks clothes were universally recognized. Warm in the winter and cold in the summer, silk has been preferred both by royals and ordinary people. Silk dresses became mandatory, especially for balls. Those who couldn't afford a dress could buy ribbons made of silk to attach to their garments.
But silk wasn't used only for making garments; it was used for tapestries, religious décors, interior ornaments and paintings. It was so valuable that it was often used as currency, its price being as high as golds. For over 1,000 years it was the diplomatic gift given by kings.
Royals were very aware of the advantages of silk clothes and wore them to every special event. Norman Hartnell, the fashion designer of the Queen, created a silk wedding gown for both Elizabeth I and her sister Margaret.
Carolyn Bessette, the bride of John F. Kennedy Jr. was also dressed in silk for her wedding. The 40 guests were able to admire her in a silk, pearl colored, floor-length crepe dress, with a long veil and gloves made from the same material, created by Narcisco Rodriguez. Her sandals were also made of silk.
Currently China is the biggest producer of natural silk, followed by India, Brazil and Japan.
Spider silk as strong as steel
Discovered in 1710 by a Frenchman, spider silk was produced for the first time in the nineteenth century, in the French colony of Madagascar. There is a spider that produces gold silk. Scientist have studied its proprieties and found that it has strength comparable to that of steel.
Spider silk was also used to create a dress presented in London that is considered to be the most precious clothing item of all time.
It was completed in eight years and the fabric was obtained from 1 million spiders from Madagascar.