History of Silk fabric

You ever wondered how long silk has been used? Are there other uses for silk as to make clothing? How is silk even manufactured, and how do you go about cleaning this delicate fabric?

This lens is dedicated to the story of silk. Besides the history of silk I will cover everything there is to know about one of the most unique fabrics that we still use in everyday clothing.

The History Of Silk

How old is silk? Well, silk is one of the oldest fabrics know to man. What is even more astonishing is that this fabric, meaning the process to make it, hasn't changed much since the origin many thousands of years ago. It's really hard to imagine that silk, a material used for clothing and other things would withstand the test of time. After all, making silk is more complicated than any other fabric.
Similar to many other things that we use today, the history of silk can be traced back to the 27th century BC in China. Use if silk was limited to the Chinese until the last half of the first millennium BC. Then the Silk Road or Silk Routes were opened across Asia, linking Mediterranean world as well as North Africa and Europe. The Chinese used silk for clothing, writing and during the Tang Dynasty, the colour of the silk you wear signify your social rank class.

Chinese traditions, along with the writings of Confucius tell the same 27th century BC tale. It states that the empress Leizu was having tea one day when a silk worm's cocoon fell into her cup.

In its attempt to get out, the thread of the cocoon began to unroll. So the Empress thought of weaving the thread. The Yellow Emperor, encouraged his wife to study the life of silk worm, and so she learned the art of raising silk worms or what is called sericulture. Her entourage was taught as well and thus the advent of the silk industry.

However, archaeological evidences show that the origin of silk industry traces back to 3000 and 5000 BCE. The sites of Yangshao culture in Xia Country, Shanxi reveal a cocoon of a bombyx mori or a domesticated silk work which is cut in half along with traces of silk weaving looms.

Soon the Japanese, Byzantines, Arabs and the Western Europe most especially France and Italy, got silkworm eggs and started their own silk industry. This lowered the importance of China's market which is especially true after the industrial revolution. And later, the discovery of man made materials like nylon and rayon further pushed back the allure of the more expensive silk for a while. Despite these new discoveries, nothing really compared to unique quality or feel of a fine silk necktie.

Today, the ancient silk fabric is still being used. Fine silk still has a higher tag price. Silk bed sheets, shirts as well as neckties boasts that "cut above" appearance and feel compared to conventional man made materials. Though there are attempts to replace silk with man made materials, nothing can really compare to pure silk quality. It has a smooth and soft feel and excellent shine that makes it the perfect fabric for high end pieces of clothing.

So while you put on that silk shirt or tie your fine Italian silk ties, take a moment to reflect on the rich history that the fine material had.

How Silk is Made

Silk is a natural fabric that is produced by the Silk Worms (shown in picture on the right). Silk worms spin a very fine silk thread and roll themselves into a coocoon, in which they transform themselves into a butterfly.

Today, silk worms are raised on a very large scale to feed the worlds silk production. Worms are fed mulberrry leaves, and after several days the worms roll themselves into a coocoon.

The coocoons are then selected, steamed, and bleached. Then the microscopic thin thread is spun off the coocoon. This thread is then stun into a thicker yarn, which is then dyed before being woven into a fabric.

How Much Silk Does a Silk Worm Produce?

It is quite amazing that over 5,000 years ago the Chinese invented this delicate, extremely difficult to produce fabric. The complicated process was guarded like a secret by the Chinese. Silk was so valuable that it was even used for traded in form of currency.

So how many worms does it take to make a square foot of silk? The answer is a lot! To be a little more exact: The thread you get from the average coocoon (see picture of a silk worm's coocoon) ranges about 1,000 to 3,000 feet, and about 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons are required to make a pound of silk. That is about 5,000,000 feet or more than a 1,000 miles!

The average mens silk necktie uses about 50 grams of silk. This means that to make a mens tie you will need about 150 silk worms! A fun fact to think about next time you tie a necktie. It is absolutely amazing that some retailers are still able to offer cheap neckties for as low as $10 that are made from 100% silk.

Alternatives to Silk

New technology has brought an endless amount of possibilities to add man-made into clothing. What is so unique about silk, besides the amazing history and intricate way it is made, it is a very fine fiber that creates soft fabrics with stunning shine.

Nevertheless, there are a few man-made fabrics that have given silk some competition. The latest one is a polyester blend called "Microfiber". It has a very close look to silk, but has the advantage of being more stain-resistant and much lower in price. In addition this fabric can be dyed into a much wider range of colors, can be treated with heat, and can even be embroidered quite easily. Nevertheless, there is nothing like fine handmade silk ties!

Blended Materials

Silk is sometimes blended with other fabrics. This is usually done by using different fabrics for warp and weft when weaving. Two well-known fabrics that are blended with silk is Poplin and Mogador. Both are using finest cotton in the warp while using silk in the weft. Both, Poplin and Silk, have been made for centuries.

Poplin originated in Ireland. Atkinsons Neckties are one well known tie brand using Mogador in their traditional striped ties - similar to the style Brooks Brothers is using on their Repp-stripe ties. Mogador Silk has the origin in northern Africa.

Mogador and Poplin are most common on repp striped ties, regimental ties, and collegiate striped ties. The fabric has a matte shine and a slightly stiffer feel than pure silk. Most designers that have mastered to weave this fabric add a fine ribbed texture to the fabric - adding more depth and more texture. Such ties look excellent for business as well as leisure, They are slightly less formal but nevertheless timelessly classy and elegant.

Sustainable & Eco-Friendly Silk Production

In recent years, with the growing awareness of environmental issues, silk production has received some negative press. First of all millions of silk worms are killed each day when producing silk yarn the traditional way, and second, much of the silk production has been taking place in developing countries using toxic chemicals for dying the yarn.

Luckily there is a way to produce silk in a sustainable way. Although rarely used, there is a way to produce silk without killing the silk worms. To do so, only about 2/3 of the cocoon is being unwrapped, leaving the worm still protected. Then, more eco-friendly dyes are being used as well. The cost of making silk this this manner is unfortunately still very high. China, the main exporter of raw silk has not adopted this method because customers and wholesales across the globe are not willing to pay a premium. Unless consumer demand for eco-friendly silk is on the rise, changes in silk production are most likely not going to change.