Centuries of Silk - from China to Como

Article excerpt

The origin of silk is veiled in mystery. It is generally agreed that it was first woven in China. Tradition holds that it was Hsi-ling-shi, wife of the Emperor Huang-ti, who discovered silk in the third millennium b.c. Apparently a cocoon fell into her hot tea and revealed the lustrous filaments to her.

More concrete evidence comes in the form of red fragments of textile discovered in the township of Qianshanyang in the province of Tzejiang. These have been carbon-dated to 3000 b.c., making the textile the oldest known silk fabric anywhere. In the same area, close to the town of Wu-hsing, more silk strands have been excavated. These were dated back to 2850--2650 b.c. Close inspection indicated that the raw material was supplied by none other than Bombyx mori.

During the Shang dynasty (c. 1766--1122 b.c.), silk commerce moved westward but was still a long way from Europe. When the Silk Road was officially inaugurated in the second century b.c., silk goods made their way across central Asia to the port town of Antioch (eastern Turkey) and then traveled across the sea to Rome. At the court of Julius Caesar, the wealthy, noble, and powerful reveled in its luxury. Silk was worth its weight in gold in Rome.

Despite their product's popularity, the Chinese guarded the secret of sericulture so well that nobody in the West knew how to produce silk. The illustrious scholar Pliny the Elder, a native of Como, believed that silk was "hair of sea-sheep." Others thought it was fleece that grew on trees or that it came from the bark of a shrub. Finally, the Emperor Justinian (a.d. 527--565), under pressure because of the enormous demand for silk, persuaded Persian monks to smuggle Bombyx mori eggs and mulberry seeds into Constantinople around 550. This action prompted silk production there.

When Constantinople's dominance faded in the ninth century, cities in Syria and Greece took over. …