Uncommon Thread: The Story of Silk

Close-up of colourful silk fabrics
Image credit: Prince Abid on Unsplash

Nothing suggests the finer things in life quite like silk does. Its sheen connotes luxury, care, and an eye for aesthetics. In menswear — regardless of the garment or accessory it comes in — silk offers its wearer the opportunity to temper the hard lines and rugged fabrics so typical of masculine silhouettes by injecting something softer and altogether more sophisticated. 

It seems fair to say, however, that the splendour of the final product is inversely proportional to the gross reality of its origins. Silk is produced by a variety of insects and arachnids, especially moth caterpillars that use silk to construct their cocoons. However you spin it then, silk comes from some creepy-crawly or another, but the species that produces the most by far is the larva of the silkworm moth, or Bombyx mori. I’ll refer you to a biology textbook if you want the specifics of just how they make it (which, trust me, you probably don’t), but as far as human use is concerned, we basically pop the cocoons of domesticated silkworms in some warm water to soften them up before reeling them off. 

If the biological origins and opulent uses of silk put you off, consider this: Silk production is rare in being a renewable process that generally has a positive impact on ecosystems. This is because mulberry bush cultivation (needed for feeding silkworms) actually regenerates the soil the trees are planted in and typically doesn’t need irrigation since the trees require very little water. Also, silkworms are particularly sensitive to agrochemicals and will only eat untreated mulberry leaves, so sericulture can be a good indicator of an area with high levels of biodiversity and a healthy environment.

While modern sericulture is a scientific endeavour, begin to unravel the history of silk and you’ll find it’s steeped in legend and myth. The Chinese, who are still the world’s largest silk producers, have a story about a princess, Si Ling-chi, who first discovered that silk cocoons could be unwound when one fell from a tree into her teacup. This would have been around 2 650 B.C.E and, indeed, archaeological evidence has dated the use of silk in China to roughly this time. 

Artwork depicting Chinese silk makers
Early 12th century painting of women inspecting silk
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

China closely guarded its silk-producing secrets, although it did do a roaring trade exporting it. As a commodity, silk was so central to ancient trade that it gave its name to the silk road, the famed four-thousand-year-old trade route that connected China to the Mediterranean. The rest of the world did catch on eventually, though, with silk culture first popping up in Europe around 550 C.E. in Constantinople, allegedly thanks to former missionaries who had smuggled mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs out of China. From there silk culture spread to Africa and other parts of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Italy, in particular, gained a reputation for fine silk, and later so would France and England. 

Map printed on a silk handkerchief
18th century map printed on a silk handherckief
Image credit: Cooper–Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum / Public domain

In the modern era, silk’s market share has been significantly dented by the advent of synthetic fabrics like nylon, which replaced silk in hosiery and other garments beginning during the Second World War. Silk did, however, find another, wholly unexpected wartime use. Twentieth-century advancements in silk printing meant that designers were able to produce more intricate prints than ever before, including maps of enemy territory disguised as a scarf or a handkerchief. Unlike a paper map, these could withstand damage by wrinkling and water, and were much easier to conceal. Remember that when anyone tries to tell you your pocket square serves no purpose.