The Story of Luxurious Silk
Picture Credit - everythingsilkworms.com.au
Silk has set the standard in luxury fabrics for several millennia.
The origins of silk date back to Ancient China. Legend has it that a Chinese princess was sipping tea in her garden when a cocoon fell into her cup, and the hot tea loosened the long strand of silk. Ancient literature, however, attributes the popularization of silk to the Chinese Empress Si-Ling, to around 2600 b.c. Called the Goddess of the Silkworm, Si-Ling apparently raised silkworms and designed a loom for making silk fabrics.
The Chinese used silk fabrics for arts and decorations as well as for clothing. Silk became an integral part of the Chinese economy and an important means of exchange for trading with neighbouring countries. Caravans traded the prized silk fabrics along the famed Silk Road into the Near East. By the fourth century b.c., Alexander the Great is said to have introduced silk to Europe. The popularity of silk was influenced by Christian prelates who donned the rich fabrics and adorned their altars with them. Gradually the nobility began to have their own clothing fashioned from silk fabrics as well.
Initially, the Chinese were highly protective of their secret to making silk. Indeed, the reigning powers decreed death by torture to anyone who divulged the secret of the silk-worm. Eventually, the mystery of the silk-making process was smuggled into neighbouring regions, reaching Japan about a.d. 300 and India around a.d. 400. By the eighth century, Spain began producing silk, and 400 years later Italy became quite successful at making silk, with several towns giving their names to particular types of silk.
The first country to apply scientific techniques to raising silkworms was Japan, which produces some of the world's finest silk fabrics. Other countries that also produce quality silks are China, Italy, India, Spain, and France. Silk is highly valued because it possesses many excellent properties.
Not only does it look lustrous and feel luxurious, but it is also lightweight, resilient, and extremely strong—one filament of silk is stronger then a comparable filament of steel! Although fabric manufacturers have created less costly alternatives to silk, such as nylon and polyester, silk is still in a class by itself.
Sericulture is both an art and science of raising silkworms for silk production.
Silk was a profitable trade commodity in China. Traders from ancient Persia (now, Iran) used to bring richly coloured and fine textured silks from Chinese merchants through hazardous routes interspersed with dangerous mountainous terrains, difficult passes, dry deserts and thick forests.
Picture Credit - straitstimes.com
Though, commodities like amber, glass, spices and tea were also traded along with silk which indeed rapidly became one of the principal elements of the Chinese economy and hence, the trade route got the name ‘SILK ROUTE’. Even today, silk reigns supreme as an object of desire and fabric of high fashion. Being a rural based industry, the production and weaving of silk are largely carried out by relatively poor sections of the society and this aspect of sericulture has made it popular and sustainable in countries like China and India.
The secret to silk production is the tiny creature known as the silkworm, which is the caterpillar of the silk moth Bombyx mori. It feeds solely on the leaves of mulberry trees. Only one other species of moth, the Antheraea mylitta, also produces silk fi. This is a wild creature, and its silk filament is about three times heavier than that of the cultivated silkworm. Its coarser fibre is called tussar. The life cycle of the Bombyx mori begins with eggs laid by the adult moth.
The larvae emerge from the eggs and feed on mulberry leaves. In the larval stage, the Bombyx is the caterpillar known as the silkworm. The silkworm spins a protective cocoon around itself so it can safely transform into a chrysalis. In nature, the chrysalis breaks through the cocoon and emerges as a moth. The moths mate and the female lays 300 to 400 eggs. A few days after emerging from the cocoon, the moths die and the life cycle continues.
The cultivation of silkworms for the purpose of producing silk is called sericulture. Over the centuries, sericulture has been developed and refined to a precise science. Sericulture involves raising healthy eggs through the chrysalis stage when the worm is encased in its silky cocoon. The chrysalis inside is destroyed before it can break out of the cocoon so that the precious silk filament remains intact.
The healthiest moths are selected for breeding, and they are allowed to reach maturity, mate, and produce more eggs. Generally, one cocoon produces between 1,000 and 2,000 feet of silk filament, made essentially of two elements. The fibre, called fibroin, makes up between 75 and 90%, and sericin, the gum secreted by the caterpillar to glue the fibre into a cocoon, comprises about 10-25% of silk. Other elements include fats, salts, and wax. To make one yard of silk material, about 3,000 cocoons are used.
Silk has been intermingled with the life and culture of the Indians.
Though India is producing all the varieties of silk i.e., dress materials, scarves/stoles, readymade garments, etc., the silk sarees are unique. The saree is almost synonymous with the word silk. It is the traditional costume of Indian woman since time immemorial. There are innumerable references in Indian literature about this draped garment and the style of wearing differs from time to time, region to region and people to people.
The silk sarees of India are among the living examples of the excellent craftsmanship of the weavers of the country. There are four types of natural silk which are commercially known and produced in the world.
Among them mulberry silk is the most important and contributes as much as 90 per cent of world production, therefore, the term "silk" in general refers to the silk of the mulberry silkworm. Three other commercially important types fall into the category of non-mulberry silks namely: Eri silk; Tasar silk; and Muga silk. There are also other types of non-mulberry silk, which are mostly wild and exploited in Africa and Asia, are Anaphe silk, Fagara silk, Coan silk, Mussel silk and Spider silk.
Bulk of the commercial silk produced in the world comes from this variety and often generally refers to mulberry silk.
Mulberry silk comes from the silkworm, Bombyx mori L which solely feeds on the leaves of mulberry plant. These silkworms are completely domesticated and reared indoors. Mulberry silk contributes to around 90 percent of the world silk production.
Tussar silk is produced from larvae of several species of silkworms belonging to the moth genus Antheraea.
These silkworms live in the wild forest in trees belonging
to Terminalia species and Shorea robusta as well as other food plants
like jamun and oak found in South Asia, eating the leaves of the trees they live on, Tussar silk is valued for its rich texture and natural deep gold colour, and varieties are produced in many countries, including China, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka.
The Tussar silk weaving industry in Bhagalpur, more than a century old, has about 30,000 handloom weavers working on some 25,000 handlooms. The total value of annual trade is around Rs. 100 crores, about half of which comes from exports.
The sari is the most important Tussar silk product although it is also used as the base material for handicrafts, furnishing fabrics, and stitched apparel.
Muga Silk, this golden yellow colour silk is prerogative of India and the pride of Assam. It is obtained from semi-domesticated multi-voltine silkworm, Antheraea assamensis. These silkworms feed on the aromatic leaves of Som and Soalu plants and are reared on trees similar to that of Tussar. Muga culture is specific to the state of Assam and an integral part of the tradition and culture of that state.
The muga silk, a high value product is used in products like sarees, mekhalas, chaddars, etc. Also known as Endi or Errandi, Eri is a multivoltine silk spun from open-ended cocoons, unlike other varieties of silk. Eri silk is the product of the domesticated silkworm, Philosamia ricini that feeds mainly on castor leaves.
Ericulture is a household activity practiced mainly for protein rich pupae, a delicacy for the tribal. Resultantly, the eri cocoons are open-mouthed and are spun. The silk is used indigenously for preparation of chaddars (wraps) for own use by these tribals. In India, this culture is practiced mainly in the north-eastern states and Assam. It is also found in Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa.
Matka Silk is a rough handloom silk fabric made from the waste Mulberry Silk without removing its gum (sericin) part.
It is largely obtained from the states of Karnataka and Kashmir but its spinning is done in the Malda and Murshidabad districts in West Bengal. Sujapur village in West Bengal, Islampur village in Bangladesh and Dariapur village in Gujarat are some of the well known Matka silk producing villages.
The thickness of Matka Silk can vary as per the amount of yarn used. This results in a controlled thickness of the fabric which contributes to its varied uses in different industries of clothing, home furnishing, and textiles. It is a versatile fabric and easy to use. Besides using these sarees, dresses, suits, jackets and furnishings, it is also well suited for kids stuff toys. It is very lightweight and used in embroidery and textile art. It is also suitable for scrapbooks, fabric journals, and collages.
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