Legend of Silk in Ancient China | Definition & History

What is silk?

When creating their cocoons, silkworms make silk, a delicate but durable material. It can be woven into a fabric that is incredibly smooth and silky. For thousands of years after it was developed, silk fabric was crucial to Ancient Chinese culture and economy.

Tale of the Silk

According to legend, Leizu, the Yellow Emperor’s wife, created the method for manufacturing silk fabric in around 2696 BC. Leizu first had the concept for silk while enjoying tea in the imperial gardens. In her tea, a cocoon fell and disintegrated. She discovered that the cocoon was actually constructed from a length of sturdy yet delicate thread.

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Then, Leizu figured out how to make a thread out of the silk fibers. She also created the silk loom, which knitted the threads together to create a silky fabric. Leizu soon had a grove of mulberry trees for the silkworms to eat from and began instructing the rest of China in the art of producing silk.

Creating silk

To make the high-quality silk they desired, the ancient Chinese developed unique moth breeds. The steps in the production of silk are as follows:

A moth dies after laying about 500 eggs.

When the eggs hatch, the young worms are fed mulberry leaves for a month until they reach adult size.

Worms create cocoons.

The developing moth inside the cocoons is killed by steaming them.

Hot water is used to rinse the cocoons in order to release the threads.

The cocoons were unwound by the women, who then combined around six fibers to create silk threads.

The threads are used to create textile.

After that, the fabric is crushed to make it softer.

Chinese culture and silk

Ancient China considered silk fabric to be of great value. Silk clothing was a significant status symbol. Silk was first restricted to royal family members only. Later, only the noble class was allowed to wear silk garments. Silk was forbidden for both merchants and peasants to wear. Even money made of silk was utilized in several Chinese kingdoms in antiquity.

Secretly Using Silk

For the Chinese, silk became a treasured export. Foreign nobles and kings coveted silk and were willing to pay exorbitant amounts for it. The Chinese rulers wished to keep the production of silk a secret. Anyone found divulging the information or removing silkworms from China was executed.

Silk Smuggling

Over a thousand years, the Chinese were successful in keeping silk a secret. However, in 550 AD, two Byzantine Empire monks who were able to smuggle some silkworm eggs out of the country made the secret of silk known to other nations. Inside their bamboo walking sticks, they hid the eggs.

Facts Worth Knowing About Silk

Peasants weren’t permitted to wear silk until the Qing period, which ruled from 1644 to 1911.

In addition to being used for clothing, silk was also used to make paper, fishing lines, bowstrings, and canvas for paintings.

Italy started to become one of the primary manufacturers of silk during the thirteenth century. Italy currently produces some of the finest silk in the world.

Designs were frequently embroidered on silk clothes. Flowers and birds were the most widely used patterns.

Because silk was such a significant Chinese export, the trade route from Europe to China came to be known as the Silk Road.