The history of silk

tea where a silk cocoon was found
Silk is one of the oldest fibres known to man; its illuminating features and ultimate softness mean that it is a much-loved material, which holds connotations of sheer luxury, elegance and comfort. Here at ddoo collective, all of our garments are made from 100% habotai silk, ensuring that the high-quality cloth is long-lasting and feels as luxurious on the skin as it looks beautiful on the outside.If you are intrigued by the enchanting history of this fine fibre, then continue reading to learn the stories that bring us to the silk industry today.

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The Chinese Legend

The origins of silk have deep roots in China, with a beautiful story that tells of the first discovery of silk. Legend has it that silk was actually first discovered to be a wearable fibre by accident. Empress Xsi Lingshi (otherwise known as Leizu) at the young age of 14, sat underneath a mulberry tree with a cup of hot tea when a cocoon fell into her cup. As the cocoon began to unravel in the tea, the Empress was mesmerised by the lustrous qualities of the silk threads and simply had to explore where this magical thread had come from. She uncovered the source as the Bombyx mori silkworm. Then, on the recommendation of a good friend, she began to cultivate a clat of these silkworms producing beauties on a larger scale. This enabled her to turn the silken threads into beautiful garments, and it is said that she then went on to invent the reel and loom so that she could turn the silken fibres into wearable cloth with ease.

Empress Xsi Lingshi is today known as the ‘goddess of silk’ in Chinese mythology. Although many debates have taken place to decipher whether this is just simple a legend or a true story, it is a heart-warming tale that tells of the magic of silk.

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The sworn secret of silk

Silk itself, when first introduced, was to be used only by the Chinese imperial court. China kept this a sworn secret for what is thought to be around 3,000 years, and they held it as a treasure of the country. The threads were regarded as an extremely prestigious item, and even once the secret was out, it was still only reserved for those in high power or in position of incredible wealth. Silk was often one of their most highly protected items, stored amongst highly valuable jewels and other items of importance for preservation.

It wasn't until the 1st century that silk was brought into the Roman Empire. Considered a luxury product, imperial edicts were issued to control the pricing of silk, ensuring that only those who were worthy were able to purchase such fine cloth. The fabric was regarded as ‘quintessentially royal’ and was seen as a greatly important source of income to the crown.
The threads were carefully crafted into fine silk garments and wall hangings draped in grand buildings to show prestige and high power and only to be seen by a select few. The popularity of silk continued to grow into the Middle Ages, which led to the further development of trading routes between Europe and the Far East along the Silk Road…

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Image credit: Whole_world_land_and_oceans under Creative Commons

The Silk Road

The Silk Road was a defining factor in the success of this fine cloth across the world. It was an ancient network of trading routes linking East to West, and allowed commerce to flourish with products including spices, vegetables, textiles and wood works.

The variety of both sea and land routes not only allowed for goods to be transported but also for cultures and traditions to intertwine and to learn from one another as well. Recipes, techniques and stories were shared along the road, as people came together to share their goods with the world. This also meant that Chinese silk became a part of the culture in Greece, Japan, Egypt and the Roman Empire and was no longer a secret kept by the Chinese, but could be enjoyed by all who could afford it.

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Sericulture arrives in Europe

The story goes that in 552AD, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian sent two Nestorian monks to central Asia on a mission to obtain some precious silkworm eggs so that they would be able to make silken threads of their own. Adult silkworms were too difficult to transport along the lengthy journey, so eggs had to be selected instead. The two monks managed their mission by hiding the silkworm eggs within long sticks of bamboo, where they were secured for the journey back to the Byzantine Emperor. It is thought that the expedition lasted two long years, but was certainly worth the wait once the glorious silkworms arrived.

Whilst on their journey back to the Emperor the eggs hatched but thankfully did not cocoon until they arrived to their new home. This enabled the Byzantine Church to make fine silk fabrics for the Emperor. Made using intricate weaving techniques that they had learnt from Egypt, these fabrics were amongst some of the most beautiful pieces ever created. Their beauty was due to the incredibly delicate details of embroidery that embellished the fabrics, creating a show-stopping appearance. The success of this secret mission led to the creation of the Byzantine silk industry, which very soon became a large part of the silk monopoly.

The expedition did not come without consequence however, as the acquisition of the silkworms was said to have broken the Chinese and Persian silk monopolies. Therefore, silk became a solid base of the Byzantine economy for 650 years until the demise in 1204. Silk was often dyed purple and was only to be worn by those in power to show their high status through the luxury of silk garments.

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Silk in modern day

Having been competing with Japan for a number of years, the 1970s brought China back to the forefront of silk production and they are still today the world’s largest producer and exporter of both raw silk and silk yarn. It is estimated that around 125,000 metric tonnes of silk are produced in countries all over the world including India, Japan, Brazil and the USA, with China making up for around two-thirds of this production rate.

Silk today is still regarded as a highly prestigious item, with a luxury feel and comfortable wearability; however, it is far more accessible than ever in its history. Luxury silk garments such as those on offer by ddoo collective allow you to embark on your own journey with silk, transforming history, influences and cultures into wearable garments that accompany you on your trip. Take your pick from luxury silk kaftans to beautifully printed silk wrap trousers and create the ultimate travel wardrobe that leaves you feeling effortlessly elegant and part of the magnificent story of silk.