A History of Silk

Silk is one of the oldest fabrics used by humans and has a rich history in its production and distribution that spans across multiple countries, civilisations and millennia. The production of silk is said to have originated in China about six thousand years ago, with China holding a monopoly over silk production for about a thousand years until it began to spread all over the world. Silk is a natural fibre that is extracted from the cocoons of silkworms and is used to make textile products but has been historically used for other applications such as writing. Silk is characterised by its shiny appearance, soft texture and smooth surface without being slippery, which is difficult to replicate in synthetic fibres.

The physical properties of silk make it useful to for many industries including fashion and textiles, furniture, recreational products such as parachutes, tyres, gunpowder bags etc. and even medicine, although the most common usage is in a fashion industry as a textile which makes use of silk to make high end clothing, finely made silk dresses, water absorbent designs and seasonal wear.

While the Chinese trade became popular for the silk production, it also created many trade routes between the east and west, such as the Silk Road. Silk as a commodity was famous in Rome and Europe. The reputation of silk led to many rulers of the west attempting to create their own silk production, eventually succeeding in several places. The dominance of the Chinese in the silk market became less prominent as the Arabian countries also began production, as did Japan, and the crusades brought the production to Europe which was quickly adopted by the continent. The industrial revolution in Europe had a large influence on the dominance of silk as a textile as the production of cotton became mechanised and automated, making it much cheaper than silk. However, the revolution also created various new techniques for weaving silk that served to maintain its presence in the textile market.

Even in the modern day, silk production is led by China, with over half of the entire world’s silk production and other Asian countries such as India, Thailand, Vietnam etc. following. Although silk does not have the same value it did during the ancient days, it still is considered a luxury good as it has unique properties that are difficult to replicate by artificial means. For most purposes, however, synthetic fibre can be used in lieu of silk which has somewhat reduced the demand for textile silk.

Modern uses of silk include medicinal purposes and certain imitations of human skin and hair which closely resemble the properties of silk.

The production of silk has been subjected to heavy criticism due to the method of harvesting silk which involves the boiling of silkworm larvae in order to obtain the silk cocoons. In this method of production, the silkworm larvae are boiled to death, which has caused several animal rights groups to oppose the production of silk.

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