Thirteen hundred years later, silk production in
China was a prosperous industry. Silk was used
for everything from musical instruments to paper
to currency for domestic and foreign trade. And,
for thirteen hundred years, silk production was
the best-kept secret on the planet. Only China
knew how to do it.
As people began to migrate from China to other
parts of Asia, their knowledge of silk
production went with them. In some cases, the
secret of silk was transported away from China
in very creative ways. One princess hid silk and
a silkworm in her hair when she was married to a
prince in Khotan. In another early form of
industrial espionage, two monks visited Asia on
a religious mission, and returned to Byzantium
with silkworm eggs hidden in their wooden
following centuries, silk production spread from
continent to continent through explorations,
crusades, wars, and takeovers. And, by the 18th
century CE, Europe, Japan and Africa were also
involved in the silk industry. Eventually,
through exceptional planning and organization,
China regained their historic first place
ranking as the world's largest producer and
exporter of silk. They still maintain that top
What was this
amazing technique that the Chinese so
voraciously guarded for so many years? It is a
tedious and lengthy process that starts with the
hatching of silkworms. Two conditions are then
necessary to ensure the highest quality of silk:
the moth must be prevented from hatching out of
its cocoon, and the silkworm's diet. Baby silk
worms eat and eat (and eat!) mulberry leaves
until they become almost 10,000 times their
weight. They then enter their cocoon stage for
eight to nine days in which they are dropped in
hot water to eradicate the worm. The cocoons
become loose and the filaments, which are 600 to
900 meters long, are then wound onto a spool.
Five to eight filaments are twisted together to
create thread, which is finally ready for
weaving into cloth.
Silk's quality is not measured in thread counts
such as cotton fabrics, but by the momme weight
system. It is comprised of a different set of
standards than in other fabric industries. To
determine the momme weight of silk (mm), the
equation is the weight of 100 yards by 45 inches
of silk, in pounds.
Five momme (mm) is very light and transparent,
while 22 mm is much thicker and heavier.
Higher momme weights indicate that more silk is
used in the weaving process. Within a one meter
width of silk, 1600 to 1800 threads are
considered to be poor quality; 2000 threads are
said to be of good quality.
Silk fabric is can be found worldwide in many
items. Garments and apparel, like blouses,
sarees, skirts and suits, are the most common
use of the fabric, although in more recent
times, it has made its way into home decor.
Sheets, throws, pillows, and drapery will add an
incredibly elegant touch to any room. One lesser
known use for silk is in the medical field where
antibacterial, medicated silk fabrics have been
developed to keep healing skin free from cuts,
burns, and bedsores.
One a recent trip to JoAnn fabrics, I found only
a few types of silk fabrics in the fashion and
home decor sections. While there many
types of silk (chiffon, brocade, damask,
and tussah) the three types of silk I found
locally were charmeuse,
dupioni, and shantung.
I found the lightweight charmeuse material with
the fashion fabrics. When we think of
traditional silk, this is the type we envision.
With its luminous shine, silky feel and
beautiful draping, charmuese is commonly used
for scarves, blouses, and lingerie.
silk was also present with the fashion fabrics.
A plain-weave, stiff taffeta-like fabric, dupioni is known for having uneven and irregular
threads called 'slubs.' It ranges in weight from
light to medium weight, and works nicely for
evening gowns, semi-fitted vests, and fine
suits. Dupioni isn't recommended for garments
that are too fitted because it doesn't stand up
well to stress.
Shantung is a medium to heavy silk that is often
a combination of rough silk and heavier dupioni
yarns. While often used in making garments, I
found it in the home decor department. That's
because this type of fabric is
becoming more common in drapery, swags,
and table runners. The plain weave, also with slubs, is semi-crisp and can have a lustrous or
dulled finish. Even though shantung silk is
heavy, it drapes quite nicely without being
cumbersome. The same precautions for fitted
garments apply to shantung as dupioni.