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Development of Chinese Silk

According to archeological evidence, silk and silk fabric emerged in China at least 5,500 years ago. The cultivation of the silkworm can be traced back to the third century BC. It was said that the demigod Leizu, a legendary figure of prehistoric China, was the first to plant mulberries and raise silkworms.

During the Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256BC), a special administration was set up to manage sericulture (silkworm breeding) and silk production. The famous Silk Road to the Middle East and Europe started under Zhang Qian. Under imperial order, he started his diplomatic mission to the West from 138 BC to 126 BC. Gradually, sericulture and silk production techniques spread to other countries. Chinese silk was highly prized among the wealthy of the ancient Roman Empire. Today, Chinese silk still enjoys its reputation for high quality throughout the world.

The business of raising silkworms and unwinding cocoons is now known as silk culture or sericulture. It takes an average of 25-28 days for a silkworm, which is no bigger than an ant, to grow old enough to spin a cocoon. Next, farmers (usually female) will pick them up and place them one by one onto piles of straws. Then each silkworm, with its legs stretched out, will attach itself to the straw and begin to spin.

The next step is unwinding the cocoons, a process that is usually done by "reeling" women. The cocoons are heated to kill the pupae, which must be done at the right time; otherwise, the pupas are bound to turn into moths. (Moths make a hole in the cocoon, an event that makes reeling useless.)

To unwind the cocoons, first they are put into a basin filled with hot water. Then the reeling women find the loose end of the cocoons, and then twist them. Afterwards, the women carry the cocoons to a small wheel for unwinding. At last, two workers measure them into a certain length and twist them into so-called "raw" silk, which then are dyed and woven into cloth.

An interesting fact is that about 1,000 meters of can be unwound from one cocoon, while 111 cocoons are needed for a man's tie, and 630 cocoons are needed for a woman's blouse.

The Making of Silk

The making of silk generally refers to the process of dividing raw silk from cocoons into strands horizontally and vertically, before weaving them together into pieces of fabric.

The actual manufacture processes of various silks vary, but can be generally categorized into two types: sheng zhi and shu zi.

In the sheng zhi process, weavers weave the raw silk into fabrics first, and then scour (clean) and bleach the fabrics. This process, which has lower costs and a shorter process, is currently the major way of making silk.

In the shu zhi method, weavers scour and bleach the longitude and latitude silks from cocoons first before actually weaving them. The woven products no longer need further processing and can be directly used. The method is usually used to produce advanced silk fabrics like brocade.

Before the silk is woven, a lot preparations need to be done beforehand, like soaking the raw silk to soften the product. Meanwhile, as silk is very apt to absorb moisture, to make the silk damp-proof is very important before the weaving.

In terms of the silk pattern, the weaving methods can be generally divided into the common and jacquard methods. The former refers to the flat silk fabrics that have no weaved patterns, while the latter refers to the fabrics that are usually done by a jacquard loom (a loom that is mechanized to weave specific patterns).

When the silk fabrics are ready, the next step is the dyeing process (which is crucial in the whole procedure of making colorful and beautiful silk). With the dyeing technologies, the raw silk can be turned into flawless silk with patterns and colors to people's desire.

In ancient China, once the cloth had been weaved, embroidery was used to give the cloth its delicate, often brilliant patterns. The Four Renowned Embroideries of China were regional in their origin: Su embroidery originated from East China's Jiangsu Province; Yue embroidery originated from South China's Guangdong Province; Xiang embroidery originated from Central China's Hunan Province; and Shu embroidery originated from Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

The Silk Kingdom

Silk, as a symbol of ancient Chinese culture, has not only weaved an excellent picture in the nation's civilization history, but also has made indelible contributions for the advancement of human beings. For thousands of years, Chinese silk has been known for its superior quality, exquisite patterns, and rich cultural connotations.

Several thousand years ago, when the silk trade first reached Europe via the Silk Road, it brought with it not only gorgeous silk apparel and decorative items, but also the ancient and resplendent culture of the Far East. From then on, silk was regarded as the emissary and symbol of Eastern civilization. The earliest silk article discovered to date is approximately 4700 years old, unearthed from a tomb dating from China's Liangzhu Culture (c. 3300-2200 BC).

According to an ancient Chinese legend, the Silkworm Goddess appeared to the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ancestor of the Chinese people, after he had vanquished his adversary Chi You. She presented him with silk fibers spun from her own mouth as a sign of respect. The Yellow Emperor ordered the fibers woven into cloth and made into silk apparel, which he found exceedingly soft and comfortable.

Lei Zu, the Yellow Emperor's wife, searched until she found some caterpillars capable of spinning silk fibers from their mouth. She raised these silkworms by feeding them mulberry leaves she picked herself. Later generations came to worship Lei Zu as the Silkworm Goddess, and the Yellow Emperor as the God of Weaving.

Sericulture, including cultivating the mulberry plant, raising silkworms, and producing silk fabric, has been an essential form of labor in China throughout the millennia, as China is the birthplace of sericulture. Raising silkworms and reeling the silk from their cocoons was ancient China's greatest achievement in the use of natural fibers.

As long ago as the Neolithic Age (c. 12,000-2000 BC), the Chinese ancestors had invented flat-weaving and figured-weaving techniques, and were tinting cloth using natural (red pigment) vermilion dye. With improvements in looming devices and printing and dyeing methods, more varieties of silk were developed and a comprehensive system of cloth dying evolved. China possessed the most advanced silk dying and weaving techniques of the ancient world. 

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