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The history of silk has it roots decades back. However, silk was an unknown thing for the West for long. The Natural History by Pliny in 70 BC reads, " silk was obtained by removing down from the leaves with the help of water" a very clear evidence of ignorance about silk.
As the Chinese legend goes, Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih , the wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor initiated silkworm rearing. She also invented the loom. Considering the reign of Yellow Emperor, China can proudly boast of silk rearing from 3000BC. However, the archeological finds trace the origin of sericulture even much earlier.
Initially, silk was a royal luxury and hence reserved exclusively for the ruler. Only the Emperor, his close relations and his dignitaries of the highest rank were authorized for the use of silk. Supposedly, the Emperor wore a robe of White silk with in the palace. Outside he, the Empress and the heir to the throne wore Yellow Silk.
Later, silk reached out to the various strata of society. Primarily used for clothing and decoration, silk was also put to industrial use by Chinese. Quite naturally, silk started influencing Chinese economy. Silk was used for fishing-lines, musical instruments, bowstrings, bonds of all kinds, and rag paper. Eventually the common people also started wearing silk garments.
Han Dynasty saw the seizure of silk as an industrial material. Owing to the absolute value in it, farmers paid their taxes in grain and silk. Silk began to be used for paying government servants and also for rewarding subjects for their outstanding services. The basic unit for measurement of silk was Length, that is, the lengths of silk took over pounds of gold. Before long it became a currency used in trade with foreign countries.
Silk Moths are found in many indigenous varieties across the world. The species found in China is Bombyx mori. This is a blind, flightless moth with a life span of around nine to ten days. During its life span, it lays around 500 eggs in four to six days. The eggs are really minute. However, from one ounce of eggs around 30,000 worms will be hatched. They feed voraciously on Mulberry leaves. The original wild ancestor of the cultivated species of today is Bombyx mandarina Moore that lives on white mulberry tree. Rarely found in other countries, this unique moth of China produces threads with smoother, finer and rounder filaments than that of other silk moths. Perhaps the evolution of Bombyx mori to the present state; a moth which has lost its power to fly, only capable of mating and producing eggs for the next generation of silk producers, could be attributed to thousands of years of sericulture.
Producing silk is a lengthy process that demands constant close monitoring of the minutest details. To ensure quality of silk, two conditions need to be met prevent the moth from hatching out and perfect the diet on which the silkworms should feed.
Hatching of the eggs happens at 77 degrees. The baby worms are voracious eaters of mulberry leaves and multiplies its weight by 10,000 times within a month. The silkworms feed until they have stored up enough energy to enter the cocoon stage. When it is time to build their cocoons, the worms produce a jelly-like substance in their silk glands, which hardens on contact with air. The cocoon of a silk worm looks like puffy white balls. After eight or nine days in the cocoon stage, it is time to unwind the cocoon.
Firstly, the worms are killed - either steamed or baked. The cocoons, on dipping in hot water loosen the tightly woven filaments. These filaments are unwound onto a spool. The filament in each cocoon is between 600 and 900 meters long. To make one thread, five to eight filaments are twisted together. Finally the silk threads are woven into cloth or used for embroidery work.