Silk is the natural product of the silkworm – it’s the fibre the caterpillar secretes to protect itself in a cocoon, like all moths and butterflies before they emerge from the chrysalis stage. But that’s enough reminder of school biology!
The important thing here is the length and smoothness of silk fibres. These create the incredible lustre of silk fabrics – the sheen created by the reflection of light on its surface. You don’t see this gloss on cotton, for example, because cotton fibres are short and twisting.
One silk cocoon contains as much as 1,600 metres of filament, or fine fibre. As well as being very fine, silk fibres are strong: parachutes were once made of silk. And according to Ronald Currie (Textile Institute, 2001) prior to the invention of nylon, just before the Second World War, six out of seven pairs of stockings sold were made of silk.
The remarkable properties of silk have been known, but necessarily understood, for a very long time. Archaeological research has revealed silk textiles from 3630 BC – that’s almost 5000 years of history!
Sericulture, the art of silk agriculture, began in China. As Currie, former head of the International Silk Association, charmingly describes, legend has it that a cocoon plopped into a cup of tea that Princess Xi Lin Shi was drinking in a mulberry garden. As the Chinese princess tried to remove the cocoon, it began to unwind. She had discovered a unique characteristic of silk – it is the only natural fibre that is a continuous filament, or fine thread. Unlike fibres such as wool, linen and cotton, which are short and must be spun into yarn, silk is reeled directly from the cocoon.
The Chinese carefully guarded their amazing discovery ‘from heaven’, creating a lucrative monopoly through the magical lure of silk and the mechanisms of trade: the fabled Silk Roads. Silk, traded since at least the second and third centuries BC, was the catalyst for these overland trade routes, over which Elena Phipps (2011) describes caravans transporting this ‘lightweight treasure.’
Eventually the secret of sericulture leaked out, and other nations developed silk industries. It seems likely that India, which is home to several types of wild silkworm, already knew that some caterpillars produced weavable fibres. Silk dating from 2450BC has been found in India.
Today, India is the world’s second largest producer of silk, after China. Its sericulture includes wild silk as well as the Mulberry silkworm (Bombyx mori), which creates the vast majority of silk available today.
Saraswati’s silk – which is Mulberry silk - comes from either southern India (Mysore and Bangalore) or the far north (Kashmir and Ladakh).