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The opposite night time I couldn’t sleep and began occupied with silk.

  1. Sericulture is extremely outdated and extremely difficult. Every stage within the course of requires cautious management of temperature and timing. How did domestication of Bombyx mori, which may’t survive within the wild, happen? Legend has it that the empress Xi Lingshi found silk when a cocoon fell from the mulberry tree beneath which she was consuming tea and unraveled within the heat liquid. The story has the simplified high quality of fantasy, however tea can also be simply the precise temperature for dissolving the gum that holds silk cocoons collectively—heat however not boiling. Perhaps there’s some reality to the story.
  2. In China, sericulture and silk weaving have been ladies’s work. Ought to we subsequently assume that the numerous improvements essential to develop this culturally central and economically important business have been all attributable to forgotten ladies? It’s fairly protected to imagine that the spindle wheel—the primary belt drive—was.
  3. Silk has been traded throughout extraordinarily lengthy distances for a really very long time. Strands of silk have been discovered within the hair of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. Historical Greeks and Romans knew and valued silk however typically believed it got here from crops. Pliny the Elder knew it got here from moths however thought they wove it like spiders make webs.
  4. China maintained its monopoly on sericulture for hundreds of years, though silk cultivation finally unfold to Korea after which Japan. It reached Byzantium round 550 CE. The story goes that two monks smuggled silkworm eggs out of China in bamboo canes. The earliest cultivation of silk in Western Europe was in Sicily within the twelfth century.
  5. Skipping forward, there have been many makes an attempt at sericulture in components of what’s now the U.S. however none succeeded.
  6. Silk weavers got here to England in giant numbers as Huguenot refugees within the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, making the Spitalfields space of London a middle of silk manufacturing.
Imported Silk Reeling Machine at Tsukiji in Tokyo by Utagawa Yoshitora, 1872 Metropolitan Museum of Artwork.
  1. Japan’s silk business was crucial to its industrialization as soon as it emerged from isolation within the mid-Nineteenth century. Japan imported European reeling strategies and tools and exported higher silkworm hybrids. (I focus on this a little bit in The Material of Civilization.) Giant numbers of Japanese ladies have been employed in silk reeling factories just like the one proven on this Nineteenth-century print. (Did this employment have an effect on what Alice Evans calls the “nice gender divergence”? How does ladies’s position in sericulture and silk factories match into her theories? She writes a little bit about it right here.)
  2. Silk manufacturing represented the primary large-scale, 24/7, mechanized factories, a century earlier than the Industrial Revolution. (I focus on this at size in The Material of Civilization.)
  3. A silkworm illness was the primary illness linked to a particular microorganism, demonstrating empirical proof of the germ idea of illness. A number of a long time later, silkworms have been the primary animals whose ailments have been studied by Louis Pasteur. (Additionally mentioned in The Material of Civilization.)
  4. Like wool and in contrast to cotton and linen, silk takes dye extremely properly.
  5. Silk is the one organic fiber to come back in lengthy filaments that don’t require spinning. It was the inspiration for the cellulose-based synthetic fibers (primarily viscose, or rayon) and artificial fibers (nylon, polyester) developed within the twentieth century.
  6. Rayon was marketed as synthetic silk. This led to issues that I’ve seen referred to in press accounts of Dupont’s resolution to market nylon as a totally new fiber irrespective of silk. However I don’t know what the issues have been. (False promoting fees? Shopper disappointment?) “Rayon” was a Dupont coinage to present the fiber extra glamour than “viscose” whereas avoiding comparability to silk.
  7. Silk is vital in medical purposes and turning into extra so. Surgeons have used silk sutures for two,000 years, though for that use silk has now largely been changed by synthetics. In recent times, analysis spun off from the SilkLab at Tufts College has led to many extra medical purposes utilizing silk proteins, together with a therapy for vocal twine issues and scaffolds utilized in tissue repairs. (I’ve commissioned an interesting article on the SilkLab from Boston Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray, which is able to seem in an upcoming difficulty of Works in Progress.)
  8. Within the Nineteenth century, silk cloth turned a mass client product obtainable to the center class and a serious draw within the period’s department shops. Émile Zola evocatively portrays division retailer shows of silk in The Girls’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames): “At first stood out the sunshine satins and tender silks, the satins à la Reine and Renaissance, with the pearly tones of spring water; mild silks, clear as crystals—Nile-green, Indian-azure, Might-rose, and Danube-blue. Then got here the stronger materials: marvellous satins, duchess silks, heat tints, rolling in nice waves; and proper on the backside, as in a fountain-basin, reposed the heavy stuffs, the figured silks, the damasks, brocades, and beautiful silvered silks within the midst of a deep mattress of velvet of each type—black, white, and coloured—skillfully disposed on silk and satin grounds, hollowing out with their medley of colours a nonetheless lake wherein the reflex of the sky appeared to be dancing. The ladies, pale with want, bent over as if to have a look at themselves.”
  9. The loopy quilt craze of the Nineteenth century was pushed by the falling value of silk cloth, particularly in the US, in addition to influences from Japanese artwork. Scraps of silk turned widespread sufficient for girls to show them into purely ornamental throws.
  10. Sericulture is a labor-intensive course of, which is one purpose for its success within the Chinese language countryside (and doubtless a purpose for its failure within the U.S.). The early silk factories pioneered varied types of administration and group, in addition to hydraulic energy, however they nonetheless depended closely on the fragile contact of silk reeling ladies. It’s now closely mechanized, like different types of spinning. How did that develop? What have been the crucial breakthroughs?

I might go on. The historical past and nature of silk is so fascinating that it might make a guide all by itself. After I began penning this publish a couple of days in the past, I used to be occupied with proposing one. However I see that somebody might have crushed me to it, with the numerous media benefits that come from first publishing within the UK. (Don’t get me began…) Should be one thing within the air. Till I see that guide, I can’t say.


Virginia Postrel is a author with a specific curiosity within the intersection of commerce, tradition, and know-how. Writer of “The Future and Its Enemies,” “The Substance of Type,” “The Energy of Glamour,” and, most just lately, “The Material of Civilization.” This essay was initially revealed on Virginia’s publication on Substack.

Banner picture: Silk from Nova Reperta (New Innovations of Fashionable Instances), which recorded main innovations of the post-classical interval c. 1600. The monks within the foreground are presenting their canes with smuggled silkworm eggs to the emperor. The image on the wall reveals levels in sericulture. Metropolitan Museum of Artwork.

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