Centuries of Silk
FROM MYTH TO ENDURING MARVEL
How many materials can boast that they’re durable, wicking, lustrous, conducive to dyeing and extremely soft? Add a backstory that includes stints as diplomatic gifts, currency and even armor, and you can only be talking about one legendary fiber: silk.
Initially the fabric of emperors and kings, but then adopted by “commoners” and warriors, silk continues to maintain a reputation as one of the world’s most perfected materials. Its ancient origins are rooted in fantastical beginnings, but silk remains a marvel of the contemporary garment industry.
Mythologically, silk’s story begins in 3000 BC. According to legend, Empress Hsi Ling Shi sat sipping tea beneath a mulberry tree, when a cocoon fell into her cup. As she reached in to take it out, it began to unravel into a long, shimmering thread. She began to cultivate silkworms, and silk farming, or “sericulture,” was said to have been born (she became known as the Goddess of Silk). But archeological finds depicting silkworm designs have been dated to 6,000-7,000 years ago, rendering the lastingness of silk even more stunning.
EXPANSION FASHIONS INNOVATION
China ruled sericulture for thousands of years, maintaining a relentless guard over its production secrets. Anyone caught leaking them or smuggling silkworm eggs faced execution. But trade secrets managed to migrate, and by 200 BC, sericulture had reached Korea. Just after AD 300, cultivation began in India. And by AD 550, legend says that monks brought hidden eggs to the Byzantine court, marking the beginning of a highly-protected Middle Eastern industry. Eventually silk was cultivated in Europe. French and Italian production flourished until the 19th Century, when industrialization and silkworm diseases marked the fall of the market’s majority.
Aside from appreciating—and profiting on—the beauty of silk fabrics, the world also awoke to its resiliency. In the Twelfth Century, Genghis Khan is said to have ordered his horsemen fitted with thick silk vests for battle, which were worn under their armor. When hit with an arrow, the naturally antimicrobial silk fiber would wrap around the point, preventing the flesh to close back around it. Thus, arrow removal became less likely to cause further damage to the warrior.
THE ROAD TO AN EMPIRE
Although silk is known to have been traded as early as 1070 BC, the establishment of the Silk Road trading passages during the Han Dynasty made it a worldwide force of influence. While silk had become available to nearly every social class in ancient China, the best fabrics were still luxury items in great demand by flourishing Westward societies. It was truly a worldwide currency.
Today, China continues to be the world’s leading silk producer, and along with Japan, controls more than 60% of global interest. Remarkably, it has not lost value or caché. Through history, wars, diseases and industrialization have disrupted its trade and spurned increases in price. Though it’s still considered a luxury good, demand remains high and worldwide production has nearly doubled in the last 30 years.
For those seeking relief in hot climates, as well as from irritations caused by other fibers, silk continues to be the under-sun armor of choice. With its ability to hold richly saturated colors, it’s a natural for the bright, vivid florals of traditional aloha-style shirts.