A brief history of silk and the silk making process.


The Silk Road from Silkworm to Greige to the undisputed luxury of a silk scarf.

Recently I went to visit the wonderful silk manufacturing companies in England and Italy, to see first hand how my exquisite silks scarves are made. I was astonished to learn how much work goes into the preparation and individual printing of each scarf.

As silk is the chosen material for my design collection I decided to do a bit of delving into the history of the silk weaving process and its journey from silkworm to yarn to raw silk Greige. 

The art form of silk making originated in China nearly 5000 years ago and they remain the largest producer of silk in the world. Because of its luxurious shimmering texture, strength, breathability and comfortable lustre, silk rapidly became a prized cloth to trade during pre industrial China, proving a highly lucrative commodity internationally. The first evidence of long distance silk trade, was the intriguing archaeological discovery of silk, bound into the hair of an Egyptian mummy dating from 1070 BC. Although historians had suspected that there was a long history of textile industry in China, it was not until they uncovered artefacts, that they were able to show direct evidence of complicated weaving and dyeing techniques dating back to 202 BC.

The silk trade reached as far as India, the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. This trade was so extensive that a set of trade routes was established between Europe and Asia, which soon became known as “The Silk Road".

India is the second largest producer of silk after China and also the largest consumer of silk in the world. Historically the tradition of wearing silk saris for marriages and other ceremonies was considered to be a symbol of royalty and wealth. Thailand is also a big producer of silk but here silk is produced more traditionally. 

Women weave silk on hand looms and the skill is passed down to their daughters through generations. To have the skill of “weaving” is considered to be a sign of coming of age and eligibility for marriage. Thai silk differs as it can often embody elaborate patterns in various colours and styles. Threads are thicker and made by hand-reeling to produce different weights and grades of raw silk. Silk is also immersed in extremely cold water and bleached before dyeing to remove the natural yellow colouring of Thai silk yarn. Once washed and dried, the silk is woven on a traditional hand-operated loom.

So let me tell you a little about silk itself and the fascinating process in which it is created. It is of course the mulberry silkworm that first produces larvae that in turn produce the silk threads. It is interesting that only insects that undergo complete metamorphosis, from larva to pupa to moth in these stages, will produce the strongest silk threads.

The female silk moth lays up to 400 eggs and her larvae hatch after fourteen days into silk worms or caterpillars. They then feast on mulberry leaves eating continuously for 14 days. It is after four moultings or growth spurts that they begin to weave their silk cocoons. They spend 3 - 8 days spinning their pupa, winding themselves into delicate cocoons, made by releasing liquid silk from the salivary glands, which hardens in the air to create a silk thread. Within 2–3 days, the caterpillar spins about 1 mile of silk and is completely encased in a cocoon. Each strand when fully stretched will measure roughly 1000 metres or the length of a football pitch. 

The cocoons are then loosened in hot water and unwound. A single strand is too fine and fragile for commercial use, so roughly 30 strands are spun together to make one thick thread. Workers then painstakingly remove the clumps and debris to make ready for the dying stages or left raw and ready to be woven on a loom. It takes 2-3000 silk worms to make 1 pound of silk. The silk is then woven into batches of Griege or raw silk fabric.

The silk Greige fabric is what is used to make my silk scarves. When it arrives in the factory the silk is prepared for printing, run down a giant lint roller, then through water to remove any dust and to help straighten the weft. Then a second time through a coating liquor. Once this process is finished the big roll is rolled back into smaller rolls and put into stock ready for printing.

As you can see it is a process steeped in history but now with advancements made in technology, the printing process has taken to a digital world and the scope of print capabilities, opportunities and diversities is infinite.  For me however, it is the undisputed sumptuous quality of silk that is next to none. There are many imitations but when you know and understand what it is to wear silk, real silk, you simply will not settle for less.

Debbie Millington