Silk History

Silk production has a long and colorful history unknown to most people. For centuries the West knew very little about silk and the people who made it. Pliny, the Roman historian, wrote in his Natural History in 70 BC "Silk was obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water…". For more than two thousand years the Chinese kept the secret of silk altogether to themselves. It was the most zealously guarded secret in history.

How was Silk Discovered?

According to Confucius, it was in 2640 BC that the Chinese princess Xi Ling Shi was the first to reel a cocoon of silk. After watching a silkworm spin its cocoon, it fell into her cup of tea. The long filaments started to loosen in the hot water and she succeeded in unravelling a continuous strand several metres long. The princess instructed her serving women in the art of weaving rich, beautiful fabrics from the long silk threads.

The Chinese were so grateful for her discovery that they named the princess a goddess and patron deity of weaving. From that historic moment, the Chinese discovered the life cycle of the silkworm and for the next 3000 years were to keep their monopoly of silk.

The use of silk spreads

Gradually, the restrictions on who could wear and use silk in China began to vanish, and more and more people – who could afford the precious material – could be seen sporting silk clothing and decorating with silk ornaments.

Eventually, silk production grew to become quite a large industry in China. Silk was used for a variety of things, from fishing-lines and bowstrings to musical instruments. Earlier, documents had been written on silk cloth. Now, Chinese paper makers developed techniques for making more affordable, yet still luxurious, paper where silk rags were mixed with other naturally occuring fibers to make the pulp.

Soon, silk was present in so many aspects of Chinese life that it began altering the language. Even today, well over 200 of the 5,000 most commonly used characters in Mandarin texts have silk as their “key”.

Silk as a currency / commodity

During the Han Dynasty, silk became somewhat of a currency. There are for instance documents from this era telling us about farmers who paid their taxes in grain and silk. When taxes were paid in silk, it also ment that the state would make its payments in silk, and civil servents could for instance get their salary in the form of silk. The cost of something could be described using lenghts of silk as the unit of measurment, just like many other societies would use weight units of gold or silver.

Since silk was highly valued and appriciated outside China as well, lenghts of silk became a well-established trading commodity between China and foreign countries. It remain an important commodity to this day and you can buy a number of different silk based securities and financial instruments including futures, binary or over/under options, and ETFs.

The Silk Road

During the 2nd century BC, the Chinese Emperor Han Wu Di dispatched ambassadors far and wide, and one of the many types of precious gifts they carried with them was silk. These embassadors travelled east as far as Persia and Mesopotamia.

The Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in silk carried out along its lenght. It was this trade that made it possible for people in places located far away from any silk cultivation and silk weaving to wear and use silk. For instance, silk has been found with an ancient Egyptian mummy in the village of Deir el Medina; a mummy dated to 1070 BC.

Silk Today

World silk production has approximately doubled during the last 30 years in spite of man-made fibers replacing silk for some uses

Nowadays, China produces approximately half of all silk made worldwide. Although there are many countries like Japan which produce very good quality silk, it is still the Chinese who are the masters at it. At Comhaus, we are extremely proud to maintain these high standards and hold the position of China as the home of the best silk in the world.

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