Silk, The Queen of Textiles – National Geographic 1984

March 31, 2016


Another lesson in fiber brought to you by National Geographic. You’re welcome.

Much like the Wool, Fabric of History article I posted last week, it’s essentially a history of the silk trade with a focus on what it looks like today (today as in 1984). Again, I’m not going to summarize the whole thing, just share the images and facts that really stuck with me.

“Silk does for the body what diamonds do for the hand.” — Oscar de la Renta


Silkworm cocoons at an agricultural research centre in China. The gummy substance that coats and binds the worm’s thread, sericin, tints the cocoons. The colour fades once it’s boiled during processing.

Why Silk is Basically Magic

  • It’s the shiniest natural fiber. Silk fibers are triangular so they reflect light like prisms.
  • It’s used everywhere. Tennis racket strings, fly fishing lines, bicycle tires, as sutures by surgeons, as parachutes in WWII, as food by the brave (kidding about the brave bit — but you won’t find me chowing down).
  • Silkworms can breath while they eat, which is a lot. Yup. Now they’ve got my respect. They eat so much in their 25 – 28 day lifetime that they increase their bodyweight 10,000 times over.
  • It takes a lot of worms to make a garment. 110 cocoons to make a tie, 630 to make a blouse, and 3000 to make a kimono.
  • They are seriously fussy. Crossbreading has led to much easier to raise hybrids, but traditional Chinese guidelines give insight to how fragile these creatures are and the insane dedication that must be taken in raising them. For example, one of the rules is “The attendant, called silkworm mother, should have no bad smells, should wear clean, simple clothes so as not to stir up the air, and should not eat chicory (or even touch it).” Serious business.
  • It’s crazy strong. Described as “lightweight yet stronger than a comparable filament of steel.”


Tie-dyed warp threads that will be woven to make cloth for colourful garments. These satin-weave garments would have been included in Uygur women’s dowries.


An order for silk placed by Napoleon (!!).


Silk’s been around for over 4000 years, but it was China’s secret for the first 2000. There was actually a law that decreed death by torture to anyone who tried to share the secret. Like not just standard execution, but death by torture if you tired to tell anyone about it. Nuts.

This map shows how silk travelled across the empires along the Silk Road (red line) to be traded with other commodites like jade, spices and gold. By the seventh century its use declined as sea trade became popular (blue line — far less dangerous).

Popular legend says in the sixth century Emperor Justinian sent monks on an espionage mission to bring back Chinese silkworms in hollowed out canes. How very James Bond.

By the 14th century Italians were getting really good at this, producing some of the most beautiful silks available. The French were sick of sending all their money to Italy for their silks so they kickstarted their own silk producing hub in Lyon. They restricted Italian imports and convinced Italians to come work in France instead. By the end of the 18th century nearly a quarter of the population were weavers!


Silk goldfish ‘swimming’ across a 20-by-14-inch screen that took 6 months to embroider.


A woman embroiders a silk cat onto a nylon-gauze panel at the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute (if this places still exists, I need to go).


Part of the 4000 mile long Silk Road, mentioned in the map shown earlier.


Rearing silkworms in eastern China from mulberry trees. Their leaves are ‘practically spoon fed’ to young larvae every few hours. To make enough silk for 10 blouses it takes 8000 worms eating about 350 pounds of these leaves.

Japanese scientists were (successfully) developing an artificial food for silkworms in the mid 80s, which I would assume has largely taken over now.

national-geographic-silk-10Silkworm at work (click to expand image and read text).


A Urygur man weaves fabric during the winter months.

“In ancient times weaving was done from the heart. In modern times weaving is done for commerce.”


Young girls in India, aged 10-12, doing the traditional method of silk spinning called thigh reeling. They draw fibers from about 5 cocoons across their thigh and slap them to twist them together. This is a girls job as their legs are much less hairy then boys.


National Geographic always with the haunting images, right?

A young boy might get started in the silk trade by doing tasks like delivering Jacquard punch cards to a weavers shop. These punch cards are like the pattern for a mechanical loom, telling it what to do.


In China, a man guards tussah silkworms dawn to dusk from predators (birds and other animals).


As much as looking at his nails gives me to heebiest of jeebies, it must be included.

Rather than use a comb, this master weaver precisely notches and files his nails and uses them to beat down the fine silk weft.

Another cool story about silk — by 1930 70% of the silk the USA imported from Japan was womens silk stockings. Once women started wearing shorter skirts they needed stockings, and cotton didn’t cut it and nylon wasn’t invented yet. In WWII trade was cut off, and any available silk was used for parachutes or gun powder bags (it burned completely leaving no residue).

Silk stockings were such a hot commodity during the War that a senator in Washington actually traded a dozen pairs for appointing a shopkeepers son to West Point. Can you imagine!

Nylon soon replaced it as ‘man made silk’, and became the standard for stockings.



And so, my love affair with silk continues. I’ve got a couple bags of silk fiber I intend to start spinning once I’ve got a little more experience behind the wheel.


Just for a little context, had to include this advertisement on the back.

She’s a beauty, ain’t she?

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