So after my blog post detailing the health benefits of wearing natural fabrics (click here to read), I decided to spend some time researching and blogging a bit more about the individual properties and histories of the major natural fabrics on the market.
Now silk and sericulture (the art of raising silkworms and harvesting silk) is such a LARGE topic with tons of “types” and variations of silk, that I wasn’t planning on tackling this fabric first. Buuuut, then Silk Athlete went and sent me a 100% Organic Bombeyx Mori silk shirt to review and giveaway (click here to enter!) and now I am silk cray-cray. Yes, cray-cray.
Now, fair warning, I am gonna talk your frikkin’ ear off in this post. And you better read ALL of it, and appreciate. *glare* Tell ya what, I’ll wait here while you go get yourself some hot tea, and I dunno, maybe a blanket or something to cuddle up with – or, ooh! Grab some silk if you’re lucky enough to own any, that way you can stroke it lovingly while reading all about its fascinating history!
Alright you ready? I’m ready. Let’s go!
What Is Silk and Sericulture?
First things first.
Silk is a natural protein fiber that is then woven into textiles. The shimmering appearance of silk fabric is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, which produces different colors.
The protein fiber of silk is produced by certain insect larvae to form cocoons. Sericulture is the art of raising these larvae, harvesting their cocoons, unraveling the silk threads, and then turning them into silk fabric.
Silks History – Ancient Chinese Secret
If you’re like me, you like needlessly saying, “It’s an ancient Chinese secret” more than is healthy. But in silks case.. it’s true!
Now, like all ancient stories and legends, there are people who question the validity of silks supposed origins, but I like good stories, so I’m going to just blissfully go along with the popular telling of how silk fabric came about.
Legend has it that the process for making silk cloth was first invented by Yuen Fei, the concubine of the Yellow Emperor Leizu, around the year 2696 BC. This royal mistress was playing with a cocoon (weirdo) and drinking tea in the Imperial Gardens. Now, the cocoon either accidentally fell into her tea, or she put it in her tea (eww) and it began to unravel.
When she started trying to fish the cocoon out of her tea, she noticed that the cocoon was actually made from a long continuous thread that was both strong and soft. She was like, “Hmm, this tea stained thread is awesome. I should try putting it in my fabric loom and see if I can make a cloth out of it!”
When she was able to use the silk thread to make fabric, her sugar daddy, the Emperor Leizu, ordered a forest of mulberry trees set aside for the silkworms to feed on and then taught his royal household how to make silk. (Apparently Yuen Fei has been deified through the ages and worshiped as the goddess of silk worms for her discovery. I’d say she’s definitely histories most lucrative concubine.)
So anyway, after it’s discovery, silks were reserved for the Emperors of China for their own use and as gifts to others. Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to upper class Chinese merchants because of its texture and shine, but for the most part, the art of sericulture was held tightly by Chinese royalty, who kept the knowledge of sericulture secret to maintain the Chinese monopoly. (See?! Ancient Chinese secret!)
However, in 550 AD the secret of silk became known to other countries when two naughty monks from the Byzantine Empire managed to smuggle some silkworm eggs and mulberry leaves out of the country, by hiding them inside of their bamboo walking sticks. What their motives were in blowing the secret it unknown.. lots of money? Bored? Sticking it to the man? Regardless, after the secret was out, silk exploded all over the ancient world.
The first evidence of the silk trade is found with the archaeological discovery of Egyptian mummies buried with silk in the 21st dynasty in 1070 BC. The silk trade soon reached as far as the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. This trade was so extensive that the major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia came to be known as the Silk Road.
Fast forward to the medieval age, and silk production had taken over all of the developed world. During this period Italy was the most important producer of silk. Catanzaro in Italy became the lace capital of the world with a large silkworm breeding facility that produced all the laces and linens used in the Vatican. The city was world famous for its fine fabrication of silks, velvets, damasks and brocades.
When Europeans came to settle the colonies, Italian and French fashions were highly influential, making silk laces and fabrics a highly sought after commodity in the budding Americas. It didn’t take long for sericulture to find a place in the good ol’ US of A.
But then World War II interrupted the silk trade from Asia, and all local silk production was suddenly in demand for parachutes, artillery gunpowder bags and other military items. Soon silk prices increased dramatically and US industry began to look for substitutes, which ultimately led to the use of synthetics such as nylon. But despite the flooding of “artificial silks”, silk has always been highly prized and in high demand.
The Art of Sericulture and How Silk Is Harvested Today
Today, China still leads the world in production of silk, closely followed by India. About 97% of the raw silk in the world comes from five Indian states namely, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
Learning about the popular and prominent method of silk production is quite shocking for those who are first learning about it. Here’s a little rundown of how sericulture – the art of silk production – works:
A mommy moth and a daddy moth love each other veeeery much, and then make a bunch of a baby moths. Mommy moth lays about 500 eggs and then, well, she dies. (After having given birth myself, I can see how 500 babies would do you in.)
Anyway, all 500 baby worms hatch from the eggs and then feed upon mulberry leaves for about one month until they are nice and fat. A silk worm eats 40,000 times its own weight’s worth of mulberry tree leaves between its birth and its pupating. After about 35 days the caterpillars are 10,000 times heavier than when hatched and are ready to begin spinning a cocoon.
The worms are born with two glands that produce liquid silk. Liquid silk is coated in sericin, a water-soluble protective gum, and solidifies on contact with the air. Within 2–3 days, the caterpillar spins about 1 mile of filament and is completely encased in a cocoon.
The sericulture farmer waits until the baby worm is all snug and safe in his cocoon and then he gathers up all the brothers and sisters in their cocoons and theeeeen… The cocoons are boiled in water to kill the growing baby moths inside. (I seriously, like, fell out of my chair the first time I read that.)
The sericulture farmers do this because the adult moth has a special spit that it uses to dissolve the silk so it can push its way out of the cocoon. Silkworm farmers kill the moths before they emerge and make holes in the silk thread, making it harder to unwind and fit into a loom.
So, after boiling, the cocoons with now-dead baby moths inside are unwound and the continuous threads are collected to be woven into cloth. It takes about 5500 silkworms to produce 2 pounds of raw silk!
The above method is how conventional silk is produced. If you love silk (like me) but feel slightly blood-on-your-handsy after learning about the insect massacre involved (like me), rest assured that not all silk producers are into the whole boiling babies thing.
“Peace Silk” is a form of sericulture that allows the silkworm to emerge from their cocoons to live out their full life cycle – which is about three weeks in the cocoon. The silk is degummed and spun like other fibers, instead of being reeled. The resulting yarn is soft, fluffy, and light. Texture-wise, it’s on the superior side of most silks on the market.
I, personally, intend to only buy silk by the yard if it has been sourced from a Fair Trade, Peace Silk sericulture farmer. However, when it comes to recycling hand-me-downs through thrift store finds, I’m not going to pass up a silk blouse. After all, secondhand finds don’t increase the production demands of non-peace silks from China and India.
If conventional silk production is an ethical issue for you, make sure you determine how the silk you intend to purchase is sources before making a purchase!
A Few Popular Types of Silk
There are many different types of silk out there, with variations ranging from the type of silkworms used, to their diet, to their method of collection, to the method of weaving the fibers. While the overall list of silks and their variations are truly mind-boggling, here are a few popular silks currently on the market:
Often the lightest weight and most diaphanous of the silks, Chiffon is also the most see-through. It creates the “billows” of fabric that add dimension to garments.
China silk is a lightweight, sheer, plain-weave fabric. It’s sometimes referred to as habotai silk. It is one of the less expensive and more commonly available silk fabrics on the market today.
Crepe de Chine
Crepe de chine is a lightweight fabric made by twisting some fibers clockwise and others counterclockwise. The twisted fibers are then woven in a plain-weave fabric, and that gives crepe a distinctive “pebbly” look and feel rather than a shiny luster. Both sides of the fabric look and feel the same.
This is the cliché, traditional silk. The back of the fabric is a flattened crepe while the front is a shimmery satin weave.
Dupion silk (my favorite!) is a plain-weave fabric that has a stiff, taffeta-like feel. Black specks occasionally appear in the dupion fabric, and those are part of the original cocoon of the silk worm. The rough texture and irregularities are part of its beauty and character.
Noil is made from the short fibers left after combing and carding so it doesn’t shine like many other silk fabrics. Noil looks similar to cotton, but has the soft feel of silk against the skin
Tussah silk, often called shantung, is made from the cocoons of wild tussah silk worms that eat oak and juniper leaves, their natural food. Tussah silk is most often available in its natural color, a creamy tan.
Why Silk Is Good For Your Health
I’ve listed these qualities in other blog posts, but they bare repeating here!
– Besides its luxurious softness and beauty, silk is known to be the most hypoallergenic of all fabrics because of its natural protein structure.
– Silk is highly absorbent and can absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp. It absorbs perspiration while letting your skin breathe.
– Silk inherently provides wicking and fast drying properties. When it comes to most clothing, manufacturers use mass produced polyesters and nylons, and then chemically treat them with toxic chemicals to provide just a fraction of the wicking and fast drying qualities of natural silk.
– Body sweat and bacteria won’t get trapped in silk like it does in synthetic fabrics. Silk is an antibacterial protein, not a fiber, and so it reacts on a molecular level with your skin in an entirely different fashion than synthetic fabrics do.
– Silk is the closest thing to human hair, and as such is one of the most natural things to have on your body.
– Silk provides incredible temperature control, and acts a natural insulator for your skin. So you can wear it in winter or summer, hot or cold, and enjoy natural body heat regulation.
If you’d like to enter to win a Silk Athlete 100% Organic Silk Tank Top, click below! Raffle ends February 7th, 2014!