Silk is one of the most precious, appreciated and ancient fabrics that man has ever learned to weave and use. Its origins are literally lost in the mists of time: it seems, in fact, that the discovery of silk dates back to 3000 BC, in China, where the production and trade of this precious fabric represented for centuries is one of the most flourishing and opulent activities.
Like wool, angora, Alpaca and other precious natural textile fibers of animal origin, silk also owes its uniqueness to the work of a small animal. It is a moth, the Bombyx Mori, better known as a silkworm.
THE SILK ROUTE, THIS NEW STATUS SYMBOL
Always considered a symbol of nobility and wealth, silk has long been a privilege that only the ancient Chinese emperors, priests and a few lucky others could afford. At that time the color of the clothes made with this fabric even represented the social class to which they belonged: yellow was the color of emperor and empress; purple that of the other emperor’s women; the celestial of the court officers. Soon the production of silk gave birth to a real economy in China, so flourishing that already in the year 1000 AD, an intense exportation also took place in the West. Over time, the weaving of the precious thread ceased to be the prerogative of oriental artisans, but also entered the Western Roman Empire where it became one of the most important economic sectors.
The path that from the Far East carried loads of precious silks to the other Middle Eastern, European and Egyptian kingdoms was called the Silk Road. For centuries, the Silk Road not only represented the commercial path of a prized commodity, but also an important cultural crossroads between the western and eastern world.
FROM KISS TO SILK
Legend has it that the birth of sericulture was the work of the Chinese empress Xi Ling Shi. While strolling in the garden during a spring afternoon, the very young ruler noticed a strange caterpillar. Touching it, a very thin and shiny thread emerged from it that the insect began to weave around the empress’s finger and immediately afterwards a cocoon.
In reality, it seems that the processing of silk is much older and that it became a much sought-after luxury item well before tradition wants. However, what still retains an incomparable charm today is the way in which silk becomes silk starting from the weaving of the thread that the worm produces in its cocoon.
The silkworm is a species of moth that mainly feeds on the leaves of the mulberry tree. The production of the yarn takes place thanks to two glands within which a protein-type chemical synthesis takes place. The substance produced is eliminated by two small slits positioned on the sides of the insect’s mouth, in the form of a very thin slime that instantly gels in contact with the air.
At this point, the worm begins to make movements with the head that ideally reproduce the shape of an eight. Thus, millimeter after millimeter, the raw silk cocoon takes shape, the average length of which ranges from 300 to 900 meters. Each bug can produce many skeins and at the end of this exhausting weaving job, after about 3-4 days, it turns into a butterfly.
PROCESSING AND PRODUCTION OF SILK
The secret of sericulture has been jealously guarded by Chinese artisans for many centuries. First of all, it is essential to stop the metamorphosis of the bugs. To do this, the cocoons are collected and dried in special dryers. The actual yarn, on the other hand, is obtained from a procedure called unraveling which in turn takes shape through a series of reeling operations.
The cocoons are macerated in boiling water so that the sericin, the rubbery part of the drool, softens and is then eliminated. At this point, the external filaments are also removed, the waste (strusa) and finally the head of the burr is reached. The fiber is subjected to a new washing, cleaned and carded so that it can be spun. On average, from 100 kilograms of cocoons, 20-25 kilos of raw silk and 15 kilos of waste were obtained. All these long, meticulous and complex operations were carried out manually, which is why the cost of silk was always particularly high.
DESCRIPTION AND CHARACTERISTICS OF AN ART THAT IS DISAPPEARING
The raw silk fiber and the carded fiber are very different. The first, in fact, is cylindrical, slightly flattened and not homogeneous. In some sections, the wire has diameters of different thickness. Once cleaned, treated and carded, the yarn acquires all its incredible characteristics, starting with the truly incomparable sheen.
Furthermore, silk easily absorbs dyes and for this reason it can be colored giving the garments many chromatic shades that shine in the sunlight. The fabric has a very elastic and resistant texture, but also soft and slippery, which makes it perfect for draping. Soft and light, silk is pleasant to wear and contrary to popular belief, it insulates very well from heat and cold. Thanks to its many qualities, it is very popular in the production of high fashion and lingerie and for the production of wallpapers and carpets.
With the raw silk thread it is possible to obtain different yarns and fabrics that are widely used both in the textile industry and in other fields of application. It is generally mixed with wool or other synthetic fibers to improve its resistance. The rules of breeding and spinning were handed down for centuries, not only in Asian countries. In fact, on the European continent, breeding silkworms became a sideline to agriculture and was a source of work and income for several centuries, until industrial machinery arrived. With the recent decline of the silk industry, the cultivation of mulberry trees has also come to a halt and the species is in danger of extinction.