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The Legend of Leizu and the Origins of Luxurious Chinese Silk

The Legend of Leizu and the Origins of Luxurious Chinese Silk

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Leizu (嫘祖), known also as Lady Hsi Ling Shih (西陵氏) is a legendary figure in Chinese history credited with the discovery of silk and the invention of the silk loom. Silk is undoubtedly one of the most important inventions of ancient China, and has contributed greatly to its wealth and prosperity. It is well-known that silk, along with other luxurious trade goods, was exported from China to faraway lands (most notable example, perhaps, is the Roman Empire) via the Silk Road. As the trade in silk brought the ancient Chinese much revenue, they were determined to keep this knowledge to themselves.

The Secret of Silk Production

Although silk production was kept as a ‘state secret’, and monopolized by the ancient Chinese for a very long time, this knowledge eventually leaked out of China. For instance, sericulture (silk farming) reached the Korean peninsula around 200 BC, when waves of Chinese immigrants settled there.

It would take several more centuries, however, for sericulture to travel to the west. In India, for example, silk farming is reported to have been established shortly after 300 AD. One of the most famous stories about the smuggling of this highly-prized knowledge out of China can be found in Procopius’ History of the Wars .

Women preparing silk, painting by Emperor Huizong of Song, early 12th century.

Justinian Silk Production

According to this tale, the Emperor Justinian was once visited by certain monks from India. These monks promised Justinian that they would provide him with the raw materials needed to produce silk, hence ending the empire’s dependence on the Persians (who were the enemies of the Byzantines) for the acquisition of this luxury item. The monks fulfilled their promise by returning to ‘Serinda’ (an area to the north of India said to be China), and brought the smuggled eggs of the silkworm, which were covered in dung and kept warm, back to the emperor.

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Emperor Justinian.

Whilst the Byzantines learned the secret of silk-making around the 6th century AD, assuming that Procopius’ story is true, the Chinese have been producing this type of fabric for centuries. According to the archaeological evidence, silk was produced in China at least as early as the Longshan period (3500 – 2000 BC), and that the silkmoth, Bombyx mori , was domesticated from the wild silkmoth, Bombyx mandarina , around this time as well.

The monks sent by Justinian give the silkworms to the emperor.

Discovery of Silk

Silk is made from the fibers produced by the silkworm (the larva of the silk moth) as it forms a cocoon for its metamorphosis into an adult. After being kept in a warm, dry place for eight or nine days, the cocoons are ready to be unwound. The pupas need to be killed first, so the cocoons are first steamed or baked. Then, the cocoons are dipped into hot water so as to loosen the tightly woven filaments, which are then unwound onto a spool. Between five and eight of these filaments are twisted together to made one thread. The silk threads can then finally be used to make cloths.

A silkworm cocoon. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It is unlikely that we will ever know for certain how silk production was first discovered. According to the Chinese, this discovery, like many others, was an accident, and not deliberately sought after. The central figure of this tale is Leizu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor, a legendary ruler of China who lived during the 3rd millennium BC.

In one account of the story, Leizu used her finger to touch a part of the silkworm cocoon, which caused a filament to come loose. She then began to wrap this filament around her finger. At the end of it, she found that it was a silkworm that made the cocoon, hence the discovery of silk.

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Sericulture (The Process of Making Silk).

In another tale, Leizu is said to have found some silkworms eating the leaves of a mulberry tree and spinning cocoons. She collected some cocoons, and then proceeded to have a cup of tea. Whilst she was sipping her tea, Leizu accidentally dropped a cocoon into the cup. The heat from the tea caused the cocoon’s filament to loosen, which Leizu realized could be unwound and turned into thread.

Incidentally, the discovery of tea, which is attributed to Shennong, the Yellow Emperor’s predecessor, occurred in a similar manner, i.e. tea leaves (from tea twigs he was burning) dropped into his cauldron of boiling water.

A mature mulberry tree in Provence. (CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Leizu then persuaded the Yellow Emperor to provide her with a grove of mulberry trees so that she could domesticate the silkworm. Apart from this discovery, Leizu is also credited for the invention of the silk reel, a device that joined the silk filaments into a thread, as well as the silk loom, which was used to weave the silk threads into cloths.

Whether Leizu had a real role in the story of Chinese silk or not, the luxurious fabric certainly made her homeland very well-known.

Featured image: A painting depicting women inspecting silk, early 12th century, ink and color on silk, by Emperor Huizong of Song. Photo source: .


Leizu (Chinese: 嫘祖 pinyin: Léi Zǔ ), also known as Xi Ling-shi (Chinese: 西陵氏 , Wade–Giles Hsi Ling-shih), was a legendary Chinese empress and wife of the Yellow Emperor. According to tradition, she discovered sericulture, and invented the silk loom, in the 27th century BC.

According to legend, Leizu discovered silkworms while having an afternoon tea, and a cocoon fell in her tea. It slowly unraveled and she was enchanted by it.

According to one account, a silkworm cocoon fell into her tea, and the heat unwrapped the silk until it stretched across her entire garden. When the silk ran out, she saw a small cocoon and realized that this cocoon was the source of the silk. Another version says that she found silkworms eating the mulberry leaves and spinning cocoons. She collected some cocoons, then sat down to have some tea. While she was sipping a cup, she dropped a cocoon into the steaming water. A fine thread started to separate itself from the milkworm cocoon. Leizu found that she could unwind this soft and lovely thread around her finger.

She persuaded her husband to give her a grove of mulberry trees, where she could domesticate the worms that made these cocoons. She is attributed with inventing the silk reel, which joins fine filaments into a thread strong enough for weaving. She is also credited with inventing the first silk loom. It is not known how much, if any, of this story is true, but historians do know that China was the first civilization to use silk. Leizu shared her discoveries with others, and the knowledge became widespread in China.

She is a popular object of worship in modern China, with the title of 'Silkworm Mother' (Cán năinai, 蠶奶奶). [1]

Leizu had a son named Changyi with the Yellow Emperor, and he was the father of Emperor Zhuanxu. Zhuanxu's uncles and his father, the sons of Huangdi, were bypassed and Zhuanxu was selected as heir to Huangdi. [2]

The Legend of Leizu and the Origins of Luxurious Chinese Silk - History

For thousands of years, silk has been inextricably tied with many Chinese customs and conventions. This textile advent can be traced back to China in the 4th century BC, when according to Chinese legend, Leizu, the wife of Yellow Emperor (2698-2598 BC), was the first to breed silkworms and make silk fabric. Because of this, she was worshiped by Chinese people as the so-called Goddess of Silkworms. As the legend goes, a silkworm cocoon fell from a mulberry tree into her hot cup of tee, and she noticed silk filaments started unfurling. Leizu later developed the first loom to turn those filaments into a fabric, discovering that she could create over a kilometre of thread from one cocoon. Over time, the Chinese honed and perfected the light, humidity and temperature that would allow silkworms to grow larger than they typically would in nature. In part due to the textile’s link with Leizu, silk-making became women’s work, part of the feminine arts, and later on, the color of silk worn was an important indicator of social class, initially reserved for royals and nobles and worn on special occasions like weddings, holidays and festivals.

Connotations of luxury aside, silk filaments are five times stronger than steel in tensile strength, and three times tougher than kevlar, making it one of the most robust and strong natural fibers. Silk was also tied with the development of transportation infrastructure, in the form of the Silk Road, which aided the development and advancement of many civilizations at the time. Historically, alongside tea and porcelain, silk is one of the most coveted Chinese exports, and today the shimmery, scintillating fabric remains one of the most recognizable calling cards of Chinese culture as a fabric that has created a link between China and the rest of the world. From a value standpoint, what gold is to metal, silk is to fabric, and this comparison still rings true today.

After the Byzantines obtained silkworm eggs and were able to begin silkworm cultivation., European countries like Italy, France and Spain started their own silk production, and for a time, Lyon was regarded as the capital of silk production in Europe. Silk became a major status symbol in European capitals, however despite these new silk markets in Europe, the very best brocade designs and fabrics still came from China.

CLOT has continued this tradition of silk in the present day, as a way to nod toward the roots of the brand and its co-founders, Kevin Poon and Edison Chen. For Poon and Chen, CLOT's most iconic patterns and designs include the Silk Royale brocade, which was co-designed by CLOT as well as seasoned designer and graphic artist Kazuki Kuraishi. The brocade served as the foundation for an entire CLOT collection in 2007, as well as a Christo sandal collaboration between CLOT and visvim in 2008, which included four shimmering colorways of visvim signature slip-on. CLOT’s Silk Royale pattern is perhaps best known for its use on several collectible Nike Air Force 1 designs, affectionately dubbed the Silk Force 1s.

Edison Chen, Kazuki Kuraishi and Kevin Poon

For the brand’s Silk Royale pattern, CLOT makes a point of tapping some of the most technologically advanced production processes available today. Whether in the 4th century BC or in the modern day, any worker must exercise care and skill when handling a delicate fabric such as silk. Today, CLOT adheres to the same manufacturing processes and standards of quality that were applied to more traditional silk fabric items, from the weaving to details like handmade trims and traditional knotted Chinese button sets that are applied on some CLOT designs. In addition, CLOT’s 100% silk jacquard fabric is specially weaved in a CLOT-exclusive pattern.

“For the longest time, we’ve been very fascinated with silk. In addition to being very long-lasting and soft, it represents our culture in a visual way,” mentions CLOT co-founder Kevin Poon. “We’ve always been very interested in what it represents. Silk has been part of our DNA since the very early beginning. Other than some of the recurring logos and slogans that we use, our Silk Royale pattern has become part of the brand.”

In 2007, The CLOT Royale pattern made its first debut in swimwear collection "CLOT Royale Summer"

The iconic pattern used on 2007's "Royale Thick China Shirt" and "Royale Silk Tee" release.

The 2007 "CLOT Royale Western Shirt" collection was released with a "Silk Pattern Pullover". The signature Chinese pattern on Western silhouettes strongly reflects CLOT's ethos of East-Meets-West.

2007 - The Silk Royale pattern was later used in a collaborative release with American headwear brand New Era on a range of "CLOT Royale x New Era 59FIFTY" Fitted Caps

In 2007, CLOT released a premium silk collection that included the "CLOT Royale Boxer Shorts" and "CLOT Royale Scarf", emphasising silk's luxurious and insulative properties.

2007 - CLOT features the CLOT Royale print on a collection of casual printed tees

2007 - The brand released the "CLOT Royale M65 Jacket" giving the iconic military jacket a treatment of "CLOT Royale"

2008 - CLOT teamed up with Japanese label, HEAD PORTER on "CLOT ROYALE x HEAD PORTER" Bag and Pouch, revealing the brocade print on the inner.

2008 - "CLOT Royale x Visvim Christo" introduced four colorways: Black, Blue, Red and Yellow, accompanied with a matching "CLOT Royale Dustbag"

As far as footwear, CLOT’s signature silk pattern was first used in combination with one of the most iconic and timeless silhouettes in Nike’s footwear portfolio, the 1982 Air Force 1. In 2009, CLOT and Nike re-worked the Air Force 1 Low, which featured a red silk makeup for that exclusive release. This project was a platform for Poon and Chen to showcase their Chinese heritage on a global stage, and in doing so, create a bridge between East and West through design. A second colorway iteration of that same design came 2018, manifesting as a white silk version of the Air Force 1 Low.

2009 - One of CLOT's most recognisable silhouettes: The "CLOT X NIKE 1WORLD AIR FORCE 1" was limited to 250 pairs worldwide. The sneakers celebrate China’s Lunar New Year with a themed that surrounds traditional Chinese themes of luck, happiness and prosperity. The red silk release came in a hexagonal “Chinese Candy Box” that featured a top layer that carried six different types of shoelaces to match.

CLOT incorporated their signature silk detailing on modern cuts in the "2015 CLOT Spring Royale" collection.

2016 - CLOT collaborated with Japanese brand Suicoke on "CLOT Royale x Suicoke" release, featuring CLOT's iconic Silk Royale pattern on Suicoke's Vibram-soled sandals

2018 - "CLOT x Nikelab Silk Air Force 1" - CLOT's collaboration with Nikelab caused a stir. The brand expanded on their tear-away concept which portrayed CLOT’s own philosophy of going beyond the superficial. Wearers could customise their sneakers by burning, cutting or distressing the Silk Royale layer to reveal a second laser engraved leather layer.

This year, CLOT released their third installation of the Silk Air Force 1 Low, arriving as the CLOT x Nike “Royale University Blue Silk” Air Force 1 in a rich shade of blue. Maintaining CLOT's concept of Yin and Yang, the shoes feature two separate layers in the upper. The top “Game Royal” layer boasts a distinct blue colorway, which peels away to reveal a hidden gray layer. The release was accompanied by a collection of Blue Silk designs that was exclusively available at the global launch.

2019 - CLOT featured global action star Donnie Yen in a campaign video directed by famed director and photographer Wing Shya. Yen was dressed in the Blue Silk collection and the CLOT x Nike Air Force 1 “Royale University Blue Silk” and portrayed CLOT's message of inner peace through Yen's mastery of the art of Wing Chun.

Now, CLOT is proud to present the second part of the Silk Royale series this year! CLOT has teamed up with the "Godfather of streetwear", Japanese designer Hiroshi Fujiwara of fragment design and Nike on a three-way sneaker collaboration - the " CLOT x fragment design x Nike BLACK SILK Air Force 1"! The black silk upper reveal fragment design's signature lightning bolts hidden amongst CLOT’s iconic brocade patterning and Nike's logo on the tongue and back.

The silk’s legend

According to an ancient Chinese legend, dating back more than 5,000 years, Empress Xi Ling Shi, or Lei-Tsu, the wife of Emperor Huang Ti (also called the Yellow Emperor, who lived around 3000 BC), was sipping a cup of tea under a mulberry tree, when a cocoon accidentally fell into her cup, and began to lose cohesion, showing the threads of which it was made.

The Empress immediately fell in love with those threads so shiny and resistant, realizing that they could have been woven. But not only that: having removed the cocoon, she noticed that a silkworm was hiding inside it, and that it was eating the leaves of the mulberry tree that grew in her garden. So, instead of getting rid of the caterpillars, she asked her husband permission to plant mulberries to grow silkworms.

Thus, not only Lei-Tsu became the discoverer of silk, but also the first sericulturist and inventor of the silk drawloom. The legend also says that she was the one who taught other women in the court to weave the silkworm cocoon.

The Empress, thanks to these important discoveries, raised to the pantheon of Chinese deities, with the name “Mother of the silkworm”, Can Nai Nai.

Today, thanks to archaeological discoveries, the legend and tradition are confirmed by ancient silk finds brought to light from sites of the Late Neolithic culture of Liangzhu, which flourished in China between 3,300 and 2,200 BC.

Sericulture and silk craftsmanship have traditionally played a very important role for women, especially in the economy of rural regions. They were handed down within families through apprenticeships, with techniques often widespread within local groups.

The manufacture of silk is complex and includes several stages: planting mulberry, raising silkworms, unreeling silk, making the thread, and designing and weaving fabric. Near the beginning of the lunar year, the Chinese New Year, silkworm farmers invite artisans into their homes to perform the story of the Goddess of the Silkworm, to ward off evil and ensure a bountiful harvest. Then, every April, female silkworm farmers adorn themselves with colorful flowers made of silk or paper and make harvest offerings as part of the Silkworm Flower festival.

The life cycle of the silkworm is then metaphorically seen as a representation of the life, death, and rebirth of human beings. In the ponds surrounding the villages, the remains of the silkworm are used to feed the fish, while the mud from the ponds fertilizes the mulberry trees and the leaves, in turn, feed the silkworms.

The Silk Road

“The Silk Road” points out the set of caravan and trade routes that connected East Asia, and in particular China, to the Near East and the Mediterranean basin.

Silk began to exit with some regularity from China, jealous guardian of the secret of its processing, at the end of 200 BC, both as part of the goods raided by the nomads following their incursions on Chinese territory and as an official gift sent to the nomad chiefs by the first emperors.

The Silk Road ran for about 6,500 km in length, and went from eastern China to the Mediterranean following the Great Wall of China, climbing the Taklamakan desert (located almost entirely in the autonomous region of Xinjiang) climbing the Pamir mountain range, crossing modern Afghanistan, with an important trading market in Damascus. From here the goods were shipped across the Mediterranean Sea.

In 200 BC Korea saw the birth of its silk industry, thanks to Chinese immigrants who had settled there. In 300 AD sericulture had spread to India, Japan, and Persia. In 550 AD silk reached Europe through the Byzantine Empire.

According to a legend, the monks of the emperor Justinian smuggled the silkworm eggs in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), inserting them in hollow bamboo canes. Even for the Byzantines, as for the Chinese, the weaving and marketing of silk fabrics represented an imperial secret.

In 600 AD, the Arabs conquered Persia and confiscated their magnificent silks, effectively allowing the spread of sericulture and silk weaving across Africa, Sicily, and Spain.

Spain has been the main silk production center in Europe for years until 1200 when Italy became the protagonist of silk production. Venetian merchants based their commercial fortune on the exchange of silk fabrics and encouraged silk growers to settle in Italy.

In the last century, 1900, there has been a fall of the silk industry in Europe due to the presence of economic silk, especially the Japanese silk, the opening of the Suez Canal, the advent of nylon artificial fiber and the two world wars. After the Second World War, silk production started again in Japan thanks to favorable state policies.

Often history follows its principles and origins. Today China has regained dominance in the production and export of silk. And the quality of their silks is unmatched in the world.

Let yourself be caressed by the silk and we will return to visit China.

Origins and Development of Chinese Silk

The history of Chinese silk can be traced back to almost 6,000 years ago when Chinese ancestors already used textile tools and natural silk. The oldest surviving silk products were found at Qianshanyang Site in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province in 1950s. During the Shang and Zhou Dynasties (1748–771 BC), agriculture developed greatly, and the silkworm industry also reached a certain scale. The ruling class had carried out strict organization and management on handicraft industry production.
During the Spring & Autumn and Warring State period (770–221 BC), sericulture and silk industry were paid a lot of attention to. The development of agriculture and mulberry planting had become an important national policy of countries to enrich the country.
During the Qin and Han dynasties (306 BC–220 AD), the silk industry not only developed greatly but also experienced unprecedented prosperity in silk trade and export, with the large-scale expansion of China’s foreign trade in the Han dynasty. By the time of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, people had opened up the Silk Road which promoted cultural and economic exchanges between China and the West.
Wars continued in the period of Wei, Jin and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (220–589 AD). Social upheaval and other factors have made silk production difficult to develop, but rich in content and diverse in appearance. By the Sui Dynasty (581–618), China’s sericulture and silk industry had shifted its center to the Yangtze river basin. During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), China’s silk industry experienced a high tide of development and its output, quality as well as variety had reached an unprecedented level. The important silk-producing areas have basically formed a tripartite situation.
With the progress of sericulture technology, Chinese silk had a brief glory during the Song and Yuan Dynasties (960–1368). In addition to the obvious increase of silk design and color varieties, especially the emergence of three distinctive new types — Song brocade, silk cloth, and fabric with decorative golden thread, the summary, and promotion of silkworm mulberry production technology had also made a great breakthrough. After the mid-Yuan Dynasty, the industrial pattern changed greatly. Silk production in northern China declined, and Jiangnan area became more important.

The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) was the most active period in the development of Chinese silk. The overseas trade in silk developed rapidly. The Suhu area in the south of the Yangtze River had become the most important silk producing area. A number of typical silk professional towns had been developed, and the official weaving became more and more mature. In the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912), the silk industry suffered heavy losses in wars, despite the encouragement measures adopted by emperor Kangxi (1662–1772) (康熙 [kāng xī]). With the continuous development and innovation of science and technology, the development momentum of Chinese silk in modern times is considerable, and the silk output ranks first around the world.


Silk thread and fabric is made from the fibers of silkworm cocoons. Silkworms are raised on mulberry bushes, and their cocoons are collected to be treated, unraveled, and re-spun into thread.

A single cocoon can result in as much as 700 meters of silk thread. Kiito 生糸 (raw thread) is made by spinning thread directly from boiled cocoons, while Tsumugi ito 紬糸 is made by boiling the cocoons longer, such that they meld together into a mush or a film which can then be pulled and spun into cloth. ΐ]

Lei Zu

Chinese Empress Leizu from the family of Xiling was the first wife of the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di of China. They had two sons. A festivity is celebrated every lunar 15th of March to celebrate her birthday. She was believed to have been born in the Leizu Village located at Yanting County, Sichuan Province.

It is said that she died while accompanying Huang Di on an inspection trip that’s why Huang Di gave her the tribute as the Road Goddess. Myths and legends about Leizu are still shared among the Chinese people today.

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Silk Production – Mythological Perspective

Among the myths discovered at Huang Di’s home in Xinzheng County, Henan Province talks about Leizu as a housemaid of Queen Mother of the West, Xiwangmu. She was punished for eating the fruits of the tree from heaven, the mulberry tree, without permission. She was sent to earth carrying the silkworms and seeds of mulberry with her. She later on met and married Huang Di.

It is believed that she’s the one who discovered silk gaining her the honour of the Lady of Silkworm famously worshipped until today. She also developed the silk reel and silk loom. Development of sericulture was also credited to her, earning her the title the Sericulture Goddess.

She is worshipped in the Leizu temple also called the Temple of the Sericulture Goddess standing at Yuan’an County, Hubei Province.

Silk and Sericulture

The myth found at Dujiangyan City Sichuan Province, talks about how Leizu discovered silk. But when she instructed the women to reel the silk they encountered problems with the silk threads getting entangled. She was able to solve this problem by improvising a wooden spinning wheel with a permanent handle. They used it to reel the silk threads. She then used the fish-shaped like a medium in weaving.

Thus, she earned the title as the Goddess of Silk Making. There were variations on how Leizu discovered that the silkworms can produce silk.

One story states that when she touched the silkworm with her finger, the silk sticks out. She continuously wound the silk produced by the silkworm around her finger until it ran out of silk. That was when she discovered the tiny cocoon responsible for producing the silk.

A different account from the writings of Confucius says that she saw the silk worms munching the mulberry leaves and twisting cocoons. She gathered a few cocoons and took her seat to drink her tea. She accidentally dropped a piece of the cocoon into her hot tea and observed the separation of the silk from the cocoon. She soon discovered that she could loosen the soft silk and wrapped it around her finger.

She then encouraged the Yellow Emperor to grant her the mulberry trees where she could multiply the silkworms.

Sericulture is the technique of domesticating the silkworms to produce the cocoons needed in making silk. It is a long and complex procedure guarded by China for a long period even sanctioning death to those who dared to export the silkworms or their eggs to other countries.

The Yellow Emperor, after hearing and thinking about the his wife’s ideas on silkworm domestication, thread spinning and silk weaving, thought that it would be of great help to his people. Leizu later on taught what she discovered to the other Chinese people.

Silk Production – Historically Speaking.

Production of silk and sericulture first started in China. Silk production flourished in China. Mulberry silk quilts were used in the royal courts during the Tang Dynasty and cocoon fibre became a symbol of wealth during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

It was an exclusive product of China until the Silk Road paved the way for the prosperous silk trading industry with nations in Asia, Europe, and Africa. China exported silk to other countries, but they guarded the secret of sericulture for thousands of years.

This was broken when the Chinese princess who married the prince of Khotan. In her desire to make the silk readily available in her new home, hid mulberry seeds and silkworms in her headdress and smuggled them to India. It was also shared with other Asian nations through emigration. Around 300 AD, Japan managed to take some silkworm eggs and captured four Chinese girls who were forced to share the sericulture with the Japanese. And in 552 AD, the Byzantine got hold of the silkworm eggs after two Nestorian monks successfully smuggled the eggs concealed in their bamboo walking sticks.

Until today, China maintains the position of being the largest silk producer of the world. Recently, Shanghai urbanization decreased the availability of farm lands causing silk prices to increase.


First appearance of silk Edit

The earliest evidence of silk was found at the sites of Yangshao culture in Xia County, Shanxi, where a silk cocoon was found cut in half by a sharp knife, dating back to between 4000 and 3000 BC. The species was identified as Bombyx mori, the domesticated silkworm. Fragments of a primitive loom can also be seen from the sites of Hemudu culture culture in Yuyao, Zhejiang, dated to about 4000 BC.

The earliest extant example of a woven silk fabric is from 3630 BC, used as wrapping for the body of a child. The fabric comes from a Yangshao site in Qingtaicun at Rongyang, Henan. [1] Scraps of silk were found in a Liangzhu culture site at Qianshanyang in Huzhou, Zhejiang, dating back to 2700 BC. [2] [3] Other fragments have been recovered from royal tombs in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC ). [4]

During the later epoch, the knowledge of silk production was spread outside of China, with the Koreans, the Japanese and, later, the Indian people gaining knowledge of sericulture and silk fabric production. Allusions to the fabric in the Old Testament show that it was known in Western Asia in biblical times. [5] Scholars believe that starting in the 2nd century BC, the Chinese established a commercial network aimed at exporting silk to the West. [5] Silk was used, for example, by the Persian court and its king, Darius III, when Alexander the Great conquered the empire. [5]

Even though silk spread rapidly across Eurasia, with the possible exception of Japan, its production remained exclusively Chinese for three millennia. The earliest examples of silk production outside China are from silk threads discovered from the Chanhudaro site in the Indus Valley Civilisation, which are dated to 2450–2000 BC. [6] [7] The analysis of the silk fibres shows presence of reeling and sericulture, and predates another example of silk found in Nevasa in peninsular India, dated to 1500 BC.

The Siberian Ice Maiden, discovered in the Pazyryk burials, was found clad in a long crimson-and-white striped woolen skirt, with white felt stockings. Her yellow blouse was originally thought to be made of wild tussah silk, but closer examination of the fibres revealed the material not to be Chinese in origin, and was instead woven from a wild silk of a different origin, potentially India. [8]

Myths and legends Edit

Many myths and legends exist as to the exact origin of silk production the writings of both Confucius and Chinese tradition recount that, in about 3000 BC, a silk worm's cocoon fell into the teacup of the Empress Leizu. [9] Wishing to extract it from her drink, the 14-year-old girl began to unroll the thread of the cocoon seeing the long fibers that constituted the cocoon, the Empress decided to weave some of it, and so kept some of the cocoons to do so. Having observed the life of the silkworm on the recommendation of her husband, the Yellow Emperor, she began to instruct her entourage in the art of raising silkworms - sericulture. From this point, the girl became the goddess of silk in Chinese mythology.

Knowledge of silk production eventually left China via the heir of a princess who was promised to a prince of Khotan, likely around the early 1st century AD. [10] The princess, refusing to go without the fabric that she loved, decided to break the imperial ban on silkworm exportation.

Though silk was exported to foreign countries in great amounts, sericulture remained a secret that the Chinese carefully guarded consequently, other cultures developed their own accounts and legends as to the source of the fabric. In classical antiquity, most Romans, great admirers of the cloth, were convinced that the Chinese took the fabric from tree leaves. [11] This belief was affirmed by Seneca the Elder in his work Phaedra, and by Virgil in his work Georgics. Pliny the Elder notably accurately determined where silk came from speaking of the Bombyx or silk moth, he wrote in his Natural History that, "They weave webs, like spiders, that become a luxurious clothing material for women, called silk." [12]

In China, silkworm farming was originally restricted to women, and many women were employed in the silk-making industry. Even though some saw the development of a luxury product as useless, silk provoked such a craze among the high society that the rules in the Li Ji were used to limit its use to the members of the imperial family. [4]

For approximately a millennium, the right to wear silk was reserved for the emperor and the highest dignitaries. Silk was, at the time, a sign of great wealth, due to its shimmering appearance, created by the silk fiber's prismatic structure, which refracted light from every angle. After some time, silk gradually extended to other classes of Chinese society, though this was mainly the uppermost noble classes. Silk began to be used for decorative means and also in less luxurious ways musical instruments, fishing, and bow-making all utilized silk. Peasants, however, did not have the right to wear silk until the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). [4]

Paper was one of the greatest discoveries of ancient China. Beginning in the 3rd century BC, paper was made in all sizes with various materials. [13] Silk was no exception, and silk workers had been making paper since the 2nd century BC. Silk, bamboo, linen, wheat and rice straw were all used, and paper made with silk became the first type of luxury paper. Researchers have found an early example of writing done on silk paper in the tomb of a marchioness, who died around 168 [ vague ] , in Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan. The material was more expensive, but also more practical than bamboo slips. Treatises on many subjects, including meteorology, medicine, astrology, divinity, and even maps written on silk [14] have been discovered.

During the Han dynasty, silk became progressively more valuable in its own right, and was used in a greater capacity than as simply a material lengths of silk cloth were used to pay government officials and to compensate citizens who were particularly worthy. In the same manner that one would sometimes estimate the price of products according to a certain weight of gold, a length of silk cloth became a monetary standard in China, in addition to bronze coins. Many neighbouring countries began to grow envious of the wealth that sericulture provided China, and beginning in the 2nd century BC, the Xiongnu people regularly pillaged the provinces of the Han Chinese for around 250 years. Silk was a common offering by the emperor to these tribes in exchange for peace.

Silk is described in a chapter of the Fan Shengzhi shu from the Western Han period (206 BC–9 AD), and a surviving calendar for silk production in an Eastern Han (25–220 AD) document. The two other known works on silk from the Han period are lost. [1]

The military payrolls tell us that soldiers were paid in bundles of plain silk textiles, which circulated as currency in Han times. Soldiers may well have traded their silk with the nomads who came to the gates of the Great Wall to sell horses and furs. [15]

For more than a millennium, silk remained the principal diplomatic gift of the emperor of China to neighbouring countries or vassal states. [4] The use of silk became so important that the character for silk ( 糸 ) soon constituted one of the principal radicals of Chinese script.

As a material for clothing and accessories, the use of silk was regulated by a very precise code in China. For example, the Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty used colour symbolism to denote the various ranks of bureaucrats, according to their function in society, with certain colours of silk restricted to the upper classes only. Under the Ming Dynasty, silk began to be used in a series of accessories: handkerchiefs, wallets, belts, or even as an embroidered piece of fabric displaying dozens of animals, real or mythical. These fashion accessories remained associated with a particular position: there was specific headgear for warriors, for judges, for nobles, and others for religious use. The women of high Chinese society also followed these codified practices, and used silk in their garments alongside the addition of countless decorative motifs. [4] A 17th century work, Jin Ping Mei, gives a description of one such motif:

Golden lotus having a quilted backgammon pattern, double-folded, adorned with savage geese pecking at a landscape of flowers and roses the dress' right figure had a floral border with buttons in the form of bees or chrysanthemums. [4]

The silkworms and mulberry leaves are placed on trays.

Twig frames for the silkworms are prepared.

The cocoons are soaked and the silk is wound on spools.

The silk is woven using a loom.

Silk moths and production techniques used in China Edit

Silk was made using various breeds of lepidopterans, both wild and domestic. While wild silks were produced in many countries, the Chinese are considered to have been the first to produce silk fabric on a large scale, having the most efficient species of silk moth for silk production, the Bombyx mandarina, and its domesticated descendant, Bombyx mori. Chinese sources claim the existence in 1090 of a machine to unwind silkworm cocoons the cocoons were placed in a large basin of hot water, the silk would leave the cauldron by tiny guiding rings, and would be wound onto a large spool, using a backward and forward motion. [13] However, little information exists about the spinning techniques previously used in China. The spinning wheel, in all likelihood moved by hand, was known to exist by the beginning of the Christian era. [ clarification needed ] The first accepted image of a spinning wheel appears in 1210, with an image of a silk spinning machine powered by a water wheel that dates to 1313.

More information is known about the looms used. The 'Nung Sang Chi Yao, or Fundamentals of Agriculture and Sericulture (compiled around 1210) is rich with pictures and descriptions, many pertaining to silk. [16] It repeatedly claims the Chinese looms to be far superior to all others, and speaks of two types of loom that leave the worker's arms free: the drawloom, which is of Eurasian origin, and the pedal loom, which is attributed to East Asian origins. There are many diagrams of these that originate in the 12th and 13th centuries. When examined closely, many similarities between Eurasian machines can be drawn. Following the Jin Dynasty (266–420), the existence of silk damasks was well recorded, and beginning in the 2nd century BC, four-shafted looms and other innovations allowed the creation of silk brocades.

Numerous archaeological discoveries show that silk had become a luxury material appreciated in foreign countries well before the opening of the Silk Road by the Chinese. For example, silk has been found in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in the tomb of a mummy dating to 1070 BC. [17] Both the Greeks and the Romans - the latter later than the former - spoke of the Seres, "people of silk", a term used for the inhabitants of the far-off kingdom of China. According to certain historians, the first Roman contact with silk was that of the legions of the governor of Syria, Crassus. At the Battle of Carrhae, near the Euphrates, the legions were said to be so surprised by the brilliance of the banners of Parthia that they fled. [17]

The Silk Road toward the west was opened by the Chinese in the 2nd century AD. The main road left from Xi'an, going either to the north or south of the Taklamakan desert, one of the most arid in the world, before crossing the Pamir Mountains. The caravans that travelled this route to exchange silk with other merchants were generally sizeable, constituting 100 to 500 people, as well as camels and yaks carrying around 140 kilograms (310 lb) of merchandise. The route linked to Antioch and the coasts of the Mediterranean, about one year's travel from Xi'an. In the south, a second route went by Yemen, Burma, and India before rejoining the northern route. [18] [19]

Not long after the conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, regular commerce began between the Romans and Asia, marked by the Roman appetite for silk cloth coming from the Far East, which was then resold to the Romans by the Parthians. The Roman Senate tried in vain to prohibit the wearing of silk, for economic reasons as well as moral ones. The import of Chinese silk resulted in vast amounts of gold leaving Rome, to such an extent that silk clothing was perceived as a sign of decadence and immorality.

I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes. . Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body.

China traded silk, teas, and porcelain, while India traded spices, ivory, textiles, precious stones, and pepper, and the Roman Empire exported gold, silver, fine glassware, wine, carpets, and jewels. Although the term "the Silk Road" implies a continuous journey, very few who traveled the route traversed it from end to end for the most part, goods were transported by a series of agents on varying routes, and were traded in the bustling markets of the oasis towns. [21] The main traders during Antiquity were the Indian and Bactrian traders, followed by Sogdian traders from the 5th to the 8th century AD, and then followed by Arab and Persian traders.

In the late Middle Ages, transcontinental trade over the land routes of the Silk Road declined as sea trade increased. [22] The Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, India, Ancient Egypt, Persia, Arabia, and Ancient Rome. Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were traded, and various technologies, religions and philosophies, as well as the bubonic plague (the "Black Death"), also traveled along the silk routes. Some of the other goods traded included luxuries such as silk, satin, hemp and other fine fabrics, musk, other perfumes, spices, medicines, jewels, glassware, and even rhubarb, as well as slaves. [21]

Although silk was well known in Europe and most of Asia, China was able to keep a near-monopoly on silk production for several centuries, defended by an imperial decree and condemning to death anyone attempting to export silkworms or their eggs. [ citation needed ] According to the Nihongi, sericulture reached Japan for the first time around 300 AD, following a number of Koreans, having been sent from Japan to China, recruiting four young Chinese girls to teach the art of plain and figured weaving in Japan. [24] Techniques of sericulture were subsequently introduced to Japan on a larger scale by frequent diplomatic exchanges between the 8th and 9th centuries.

Starting in the 4th century BC, silk began to reach the Hellenistic world by merchants who would exchange it for gold, ivory, horses or precious stones. Up to the frontiers of the Roman Empire, silk became a monetary standard for estimating the value of different products. Hellenistic Greece appreciated the high quality of the Chinese goods and made efforts to plant mulberry trees and breed silkworms in the Mediterranean basin, while Sassanid Persia controlled the trade of silk destined for Europe and Byzantium. The Greek word for "silken" was σηρικός , from Seres ( Σῆρες ), the name of the people from whom silk was first obtained, according to Strabo. [25] The Greek word gave rise to the Latin 'sericum', and ultimately the Old English 'sioloc', which later developed into the Middle English 'silk'.

According to a story by Procopius, [26] it was not until 552 AD that the Byzantine emperor Justinian obtained the first silkworm eggs. He had sent two Nestorian monks to Central Asia, and they were able to smuggle silkworm eggs to him hidden in rods of bamboo. While under the monks' care, the eggs hatched, though they did not cocoon before arrival. The church manufacture in the Byzantine Empire was thus able to make fabrics for the emperor, with the intention of developing a large silk industry in the Eastern Roman Empire, using techniques learned from the Sassanids. These gynecia had a legal monopoly on the fabric, but the empire continued to import silk from other major urban centers on the Mediterranean. [27] The silk produced by the Byzantines was well known for its high quality, owing to the meticulous attention paid to the execution of its weaving and decoration, with weaving techniques taken from Egypt used to produce the fabric. The first diagrams of semple looms appeared in the 5th century. [28]

The Arabs, with their widening conquests, spread sericulture across the shores of the Mediterranean, leading to the development of sericulture in North Africa, Andalusia, Sicily [29] and Southern Italy's Calabria, which was under the Byzantine dominion. According to André Guillou, [30] mulberry trees for the production of raw silk were introduced to southern Italy by the Byzantines at the end of the 9th century. Around 1050, the theme of Calabria had cultivated 24,000, mulberry trees for their foliage, with growth still ongoing. The interactions among Byzantine and Muslim silk-weaving centers of all levels of quality, with imitations made in Andalusia and Lucca, among other cities, have made the identification and date of rare surviving examples difficult to pinpoint. [31]

Catanzaro, in the region of Calabria, was the first center to introduce silk production to Italy between the 9th and the 11th century. During the following centuries, the silk of Catanzaro supplied almost all of Europe and was sold in a large market fair in the port of Reggio Calabria to Spanish, Venetian, Genoese, Florentine and Dutch merchants. Catanzaro became the lace capital of Europe, with a large silkworm breeding facility that produced all the laces and linens used in the Vatican. The city was famous for its fine fabrication of silks, velvets, damasks, and brocades. [32] [33] While the cultivation of mulberry was moving first steps in Northern Italy, silk made in Calabria reached a peak of 50% of the whole Italian/European production. As the cultivation of mulberry was difficult in Northern and Continental Europe, merchants and operators used to purchase raw materials in Calabria in order to finish the products, before reselling them for a higher price. Genoese silk artisans also used fine Calabrian and Sicilian silk for the production of velvets. [34]

While the Chinese lost their monopoly on silk production, they were able to re-establish themselves as major silk suppliers during the Tang dynasty, and to industrialize their production on a large scale during the Song dynasty. [35] China continued to export high-quality fabric to Europe and the Near East along the Silk Road however, following the beginning of the first Crusades, techniques of silk production began to spread across Western Europe.

In 1147, while Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos was focusing all his efforts on the Second Crusade, the Norman king Roger II of Sicily attacked Corinth and Thebes, two important centers of Byzantine silk production. They took the crops and silk production infrastructure, and deported all the workers to Palermo and Calabria, [36] thereby causing the Norman silk industry to flourish. [37] The sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 brought decline to the city and its silk industry, and many artisans left the city in the early 13th century. [29] Italy developed a large domestic silk industry after 2,000 skilled weavers came from Constantinople. Many also chose to settle in Avignon to furnish the popes of Avignon.

The sudden boom of the silk industry in the Italian state of Lucca, starting in the 11th and 12th centuries, was due to much Sicilian, Jewish, and Greek settlement, alongside many other immigrants from neighboring cities in southern Italy. [38] With the loss of many Italian trading posts in the Orient, the import of Chinese styles drastically declined. In order to satisfy the demands of the rich and powerful bourgeoisie for luxury fabrics, the cities of Lucca, Genoa, Venice and Florence increase the momentum of their silk production, and were soon exporting silk to all of Europe, with 84 workshops and at least 7,000 craftsmen in Florence in 1472 alone.

In 1519, Emperor Charles V formally recognized the growth of the industry of Catanzaro by allowing the city to establish a consulate of the silk craft, charged with regulating and check in the various stages of a production that flourished throughout the 16th century. At the moment of the creation of its guild, the city declared that it had over 500 looms. By 1660, when the town had about 16,000 inhabitants, its silk industry kept 1,000 looms, and at least 5,000 people, in employment. The silk textiles of Catanzaro were not only sold at the Kingdom of Naples's markets, they were also exported to Venice, France, Spain and England. [39]

Importance as a luxury good Edit

The high Middle Ages (1000–1250 AD) saw continued use of established techniques for silk manufacture without change in either materials or tools used. Small changes began to appear between the 10th and 12th centuries, followed by larger and more radical innovations in the 13th century, resulting in the invention of new fabrics other, more mundane fabrics made of hemp and cotton also developed. Silk remained a rare and expensive material, [40] but improved technology saw Byzantine magnaneries in Greece and Syria (6th to 8th centuries), silk production centres in Calabria and those of the Arabs in Sicily and Spain (8th to 10th centuries) able to supply the luxury material in much greater abundance. [40]

Improved silk production technology Edit

The 13th century saw an improve in the already-changing technology of silk production as with the Industrial Revolution of late-18th century England, advances in silk production also possibly accompanied more general advances in the technology of modern society as a whole. [41] At the beginning of the 13th century, a primitive form of milling silk yarns was in use Jean de Garlande's 1221 dictionary and Étienne Boileau's 1226 Livre des métiers (Tradesman's Handbook) both illustrate many types of machinery which can only have been doubling machines. This machinery was further perfected in Bologna between 1270 and 1280.

From the start of the 14th century, many documents allude to the use of complex weaving machinery. [42] Depictions of fabric production techniques from this time period can be found in several places the earliest surviving depiction of a European spinning wheel is a panel of stained glass in the Cathedral of Chartres, [43] alongside bobbins and warping machines appearing both together in the stained glass at Chartres and in a fresco in the Cologne Kunkelhaus (c. 1300 ). It is possible that the toothed warping machine was created by the silk industry, as it allowed the for a longer length of warp to hold more uniformity throughout the length of the cloth. [42]

Towards the end of the 14th century, no doubt on account of the devastation caused mid-century by the Black Death, trends began to shift towards less expensive production techniques. Many techniques that earlier in the century would have been completely forbidden by the guilds for low-quality production were now commonplace (such as using low-quality wool, carding, etc.). In the silk industry, the use of water-powered mills grew.

In the second half of the 15th century, drawloom technology was first brought to France by an Italian weaver from Calabria, known as Jean le Calabrais, [44] who was invited to Lyon by Louis XI. [45] He introduced a new kind of machine, which had the ability to work the yarns faster and more precisely. Further improvements to the loom were made throughout the century. [46]

Though highly regarded for its quality, Italian silk cloth was very expensive, both due to the costs of the raw materials and the production process. The craftsmen in Italy proved unable to keep up with the needs of French fashions, which continuously demanded lighter and less expensive materials. [47] These materials, used for clothing, began to be produced locally instead however, Italian silk remained for a long time amongst the most prized, mostly for furnishings and the brilliant nature of the dyestuffs used.

Following the example of the wealthy Italian city-states of the era, such as Venice, Florence, and Lucca (which had become the center of the luxury-textile industry), Lyon obtained a similar function in the French market. In 1466, King Louis XI decided to develop a national silk industry in Lyon, and employed a large number of Italian workers, mainly from Calabria. The fame of the master weavers of Catanzaro spread throughout France, and they were invited to Lyon in order to teach the techniques of weaving. The drawloom that appeared in those years in France was called loom by Jean Le Calabrais. [48]

In the face of protests by the people of Lyon, Louis XI conceded to move silk production to Tours, but the industry in Tours stayed relatively marginal. His main objective was to reduce France's trade deficit with the Italian states, which caused France to lose 400,000 to 500,000 golden écus a year. [49] It was under Francis I in around 1535 that a royal charter was granted to two merchants, Étienne Turquet and Barthélemy Naris, to develop a silk trade in Lyon. In 1540, the king granted a monopoly on silk production to the city of Lyon. Starting in the 16th century, Lyon became the capital of the European silk trade, notably producing many reputable fashions. [50] Gaining confidence, the silks produced in the city began to abandon their original Oriental styles in favor of their own distinctive style, which emphasized landscapes. Thousand of workers, the canuts, devoted themselves to the flourishing industry. In the middle of the 17th century, over 14,000 looms were used in Lyon, and the silk industry fed a third of the city's population. [50]

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Provence experienced a boom in sericulture that would last until World War I, with much of the silk shipped north to Lyon. Viens and La Bastide-des-Jourdans are two of the communes of Luberon that profited the most from its now-extinct mulberry plantations. [51] However, silk centers still operate today. [52] Working at home under the domestic system, silk spinning and silk treatment employed many people and increased the income of the working class.

Silk industries in other countries Edit

England under Henry IV (1367–1413) also looked to develop a silk industry, but no opportunity arose until the revocation of the Edict of Nantes the 1680s, when hundreds of thousands of French Huguenots, many of whom were skilled weavers and experts in sericulture, began immigrating to England to escape religious persecution. Some areas, including Spitalfields, saw many high-quality silk workshops spring up, their products distinct from continental silk largely by the colors used. [53] Nonetheless, the British climate prevented England's domestic silk trade from becoming globally dominant.

Many envisioned starting a silk industry in the British colonies in America, starting in 1619 under the reign of King James I of England however the silk industry in the colonies never became very large. Likewise, silk was introduced to numerous other countries, including Mexico, where it was brought by Cortez in 1522. Only rarely did these new silk industries grow to any significant size. [54]

History of Silk

There are many legends around the birth of the production of silk.

The most famous in the Chinese tradition is told by Confucius in the 5th century.

In the 27th century before Jesus Christ, young Leizu (also known as Xi LingShi), the yellow Emperor Huangdi’s pretty wife, saw a cocoon fall into her teacup one day.

When she tried to retrieve it from the hot water, the cocoon unfolded in a long and smooth thread, shiny and as strong steel.

She came up with the idea to weave it and, entirely won over by the luxurious piece of fabric, told her husband who encouraged her to develop the breeding of the silkworm and the weaving of the thread. Thus started the silk industry.

Silk fabric dating respectively from 3630 and 2750 years B.C. were found. Recent searches uncovered instruments meant for sericulture (silk farming) dating from over 7000 years!

The secret was so jealously kept for more than 3000 years that whoever tried to reveal it was punished by death.

With the Silk Road, which carried this precious treasure to the Middle East then to Europe, the secret was eventually disclosed and the silk industry quickly developed all over the world. But China remains the largest producer thanks to its ideal climate that accommodates both the mulberry tree and the silkworm.


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