A strong fibre with a high lustre produced by the larvae of certain bombycine moths fed on specific leaves (most commonly mulberry), and also by certain spiders.
Legend has it that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow emperor was sitting under a tree one day when a silk cocoon fell into her tea. As she picked it out the silk threads began to unravel into a fine, strong, lustrous thread that she realised could weave into a very special cloth…
Woven silk is and always has been a highly prized fabric. Its absorbency and low conductivity makes it an all year round comfortable option for any clothing: under wear, ball gowns, T-shirts, kimonos and coats. In furnishings, the huge variety of fibres and weaves and range of natural sheen and drape, from the finest taffeta to the most rustic tussar makes if hard to think where it couldn’t be used.
Silk was originally and still is cultivated in the wild, though the best-known and most widely used silk is commercially farmed. Sericulture has been practiced in China for at least 5000 years, from where it is thought to have spread through Asia to India and on to Europe. It is a serious business that has developed in line with demand; over 500 countries now produce silk, China remaining well in the lead with 54%, followed by India with 14%, then Uzbekistan and the USA.
In the wake of the 20th C world wars, when little fabric was available, silk from parachutes was sought after and a real luxury, turned into anything from wedding dresses to lingerie to bedding by enthusiastic mothers and daughters.
In the UK, when a barrister becomes Queens’ counsel he ‘takes silk’, meaning he has been promoted to a silk gown and can now discard his rather more ordinary STUFF gown.
Commercial silk is made using the larvae of a domesticated silk moth Bombyx mori, which has been bred to produce a cocoon made of a very white silk fibre that easily takes dye and has no mineral deposits, which weaves into the finest, smoothest and strongest of all silks.
Sericulture involves laying out farmed eggs to hatch on specially prepared paper–which takes about two weeks. The larvae are fed on white mulberry leaves (Morus alba) for about seven weeks before entering the pupa stage, when they enclose themselves in a cocoon made of a single length of raw silk which they have spun in a figure of eight pattern through two head ‘spinnerets’. The cocoons are then boiled, the silk cocoon unravelled and the worm is often roasted as snack food. Each cocoon gives up about a mile of very fine gossamer weight silk thread, which is so very fine and fragile that three to ten strands are spun together make one thread strong enough to weave commercially.
In India particularly, Ahimsa, or peace silk cultivation involves semi-wild or wild silkworms that are undamaged in the harvest process, referred to as Vanya. When a pupa is ready to emerge from its cocoon as a moth, it releases enzymes that create a small hole in the cocoon though which it escapes; in so doing, it breaks the silk filament into shorter lengths and ruins a certain percentage.
There are four main types of silk from which all weaves and types descend: Mulberry, tussar, muga and eri. Mulbery silk is cutlivated, Muga, Eri and Tussar are ‘wild silks’.
The best known, most cultivated and versatile of silks with a fine, strong, long, white or off-white filament produced by the domesticated silk worm Bombyx mori, predominantly fed on mulberry leaves.
Or Tusar, tushar, tassar, tussah. A golden, more rustic, thick and not as durable silk filament produced by the wild Antheraea paphia and A. mylitta worms fed on indigenous Arjun, Suka and Asan leaves. It is very good for drapes. Oak Tassar is finer type of deep gold tussar, though not as fine as mulberry silk, produced in north east India and China by wild silk moths (Antheraea proylei J and A. pernyi) that are fed exclusively on oak leaves.
A highly prized ahimsa silk exclusively from Assam made by the Antharea assamensis silkworm, which lives in the wild and feeds on the aromatic leaves of Som (Machilus bombycina) and Sualu (Litsaea polyantha), producing a yarn with a distinctive natural golden colour. Muga silk has a fine glossy texture, can be dyed and hand washed and has great durability–it’s said it will outlast its owner…
An Assamese ahimsa silk, soft, warm silk often used for shawls and throws, quilts and cushions. It is spun from cocoons made by the Samia cynthia ricini silkworm fed on the leaves of the caster oil plant, and produces a white, creamy-white or reddish silk with a distinctly matte wooly texture.
An ahimsa silk made in Assam, the only wild silk made from silkworms (Bombix textor) fed on mulberry leaves, producing a brilliant white or off-white thread.