It is impossible to say when silk, the product that lends its name to the trade route, came to be traded. And while the main object of travelling the early caravan routes was to buy or sell goods to or from faraway places, silk ended up the most eagerly traded and mysterious item. It was so rare that the Romans could only afford to sew a thin strip onto their togas.
For a long time the Chinese were able to keep silk production, or sericulture, a closely guarded secret. Legend attributes the discovery of silk to Lady ‘Si Ling-Chi’ (Lady of the silkworm), the wife of Huang Ti the Chinese emperor around 2500 BC and the earliest fragments of silk discovered date back to approximately this period. Legend has it that she was playing with a silkworm cocoon when it accidentally fell into a hot cup of tea, killing the worm, but allowing the cocoon’s silk to be easily unravelled.
Bombyx moths, more commonly known as silkworms, produce silk. They live on the Mulberry tree and surround themselves with a cocoon composed of a single continuous thread up to 1km long. It is this that is harvested in sericulture, however the silkworms have to be killed (often by exposing cocoons to hot steam) before they can break out of their cocoon. The resulting thread from the cocoons is then dipped into water and the thread is carefully unwound and re-wound with about eight other super-fine threads to make a thicker yarn. Women mostly carried out the delicate work of sericulture and anyone caught revealing the secrets or smuggle eggs out of China would be put to death.
Although initially only the emperor and the very rich could wear, or afford to wear silk, as production developed, it became common practice to use it in all kinds of products from garments and fishing lines to musical instruments and paper. During the Han dynasty it became common currency to pay in length of silk and so important was silk, that some 200 or the most common Mandarin characters in the ‘alphabet’ use silk as their key.
The escape of the silk secret from china cannot accurately be attributed to any one event. Stories include smugglers hiding worms in hollow bamboo walking sticks, and a princess courted to Khotan hiding the worms in her hair so that she could still make silk while away from China. Either way, the secret was still kept by the smugglers and silk production didn’t appear in Europe until around the 13th century. Even with the secret out, the hundreds of years of sericulture in China gave them the distinct advantage of being able to produce a higher quality of silk than any competitors and so trade continued to flourish.
Today, pure silk remains a most splendid luxury and although produced across both Asia and Europe, products from China are arguably the finest.