Silk ClothingCredit: photo courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Silk Cloth is one of the most luxurious clothing fabrics available. The majority of this fine textile is produced in Asian countries, though other countries such as Romania and Brazil are included in the list of the top ten producers.  Silk comes from various insects, but the most well-known type is produced by the mulberry silkworm.  

 History of Silk

 Silk was first developed long ago in ancient China.  At first silk was limited to the ruler, his close family and other high dignitaries.  Over time, silk became the leading product in the Chinese culture.  It was used not only for clothing, but for products such as fishing line, instruments, and even paper. The early Chinese emperors wanted to keep silk farming (called sericulture) secret and leaking the secret or smuggling the eggs was punishable by death if caught.  However, as Chinese immigrants made their way out of China, silk began to be produced in Korea, India and other countries; and despite the threat of death, silkworm eggs were smuggled into other countries in the early history of silk production.

 Each time silk was introduced into another area, the knowledge of production was a guarded secret.  Silk was a valuable trading commodity which many countries wanted to monopolize.  The trade route between China and Western Asia and Europe became known as the Silk Road even though other commodities were traded as well.  The name “Silk Road” was introduced by German scholar, von Richthofen in the 19th century.

 The Mulberry Silkworms

 The silkworm, or Bombyx Mori worm, is actually a caterpillar.  When they are about a month old, they stop eating, turn a yellowish color and begin to spin their cocoons.  A small spinneret on the worm’s lip excretes hardened saliva to spin the cocoon.  Working in a figure eight pattern, the silkworms form a single strand they wound around their bodies.  The finished length ofMulberry SilkwormsCredit: photo by Magnus Lewan the strand is about a mile long.  If anything disturbs the thread, the worm begins a new cocoon.  It takes about three days for the silkworm to form the finished cocoon.

 The worm stays wrapped in the cocoon for three weeks, sheds its skin, changes into pupa and finally into a moth.  The moth secretes a liquid to dissolve the silk of the cocoon so it can emerge. Once outside the cocoon, the air puffs out the wrinkled wings and the moth finds a mate.   The moths don’t eat or drink and only live for five days.  Mating takes place the first day and the female moth lays 200-500 eggs.  A few weeks later, these eggs hatch into the caterpillars.

 Harvesting Silk for Cloth

 Silk farmers raise silk worms on huge trays where they feed them chopped mulberry leaves until they grow about 10,000 times heavier than when they hatched.  Once the cocoon has formed, the farmers take most of the cocoons and use heat to kill the pupa inside.  The remainder of the cocoons are left to produce the moths for the next crop of caterpillars.   

 The harvested cocoons are sent to the factory for what is called the filature operation.  The cocoons are sorted by size, color, shape and texture and then boiled for a short time to loosen thSilkworm CocoonsCredit: photo by user: katpatukae protective gum holding the strand into the cocoon shape. However, some of the gum, or sericin as it is called, is left on until the final stages of preparation.  A dissecting needle is used to find where the strand will come off easily.  The strand is wound around a pencil in one continuous thread.  This is called a skein and the process is called reeling.   A single strand is extremely fine so three to ten strands are reeled together to make the required diameter of a single silk thread of raw silk.  This is called “reeled silk” and it takes about three thousand cocoons to make one pound of reeled silk.  These reels are further reeled into what are called skeins and then packed into small bundles called books.  Books weigh about 4.5-9.5 pounds each and are then put into bales weighing approximately 132 pounds.  The bales are sent to the textile mills for processing.

 Weaving the Silk into Clothing Fabric and Cloth

 The textile mills use looms to create the silk cloth used for clothing, upholstery, and other such products.  The threads are fed onto the machines much the same as any other yarns, but the machines used to weave silk are designed to accommodate the more delicate threads.   To prepare the silk for the looms, a process called “throwing” is performed. 

The throwing process twists and doubles the raw silk to desired thickness and strengtJacket Made from Silk Clothing FabricCredit: photo courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Arth.  The heavier the fabric, the more twisted and doubled the raw silk. Threads used for embroidery and sewing have smoother twists and more doubles.  It is often after the throwing process the silk is further washed with soap and boiling water to remove the remainder of the sericin.   Once the throwing process is completed, the threads are sent to the looms to be woven into fabric.

 Silk remains a popular choice for an elegant and luxurious clothing fabrics as well as goods such as silk sheets, ties, and scarves.  Once the fabric of only emperors, this lustrous and fine cloth now has a place in many homes across the world.  It is one of the more expensive fabrics and is not without controversy. Animal right activists oppose silk farming because the silkworms are killed in the process.  Proponents insist it is similar to breeding cattle for slaughter; the silkworms are bred specifically for the purpose of creating the cocoon of silk.  The controversy is bound to continue as both sides make their cases.






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