A Stew of Facts

Did you know?

  • Legend has it that silk was discovered circa 2700 BC by Lei Zu (also known as Xi Ling Shi), the wife of the Yellow Emperor. According to one story, she was in the Imperial Gardens, sitting beneath a mulberry tree with some silkworm cocoons in her hand, when she accidentally dropped one into her tea. The cocoon began to unravel in the hot water revealing a long, fine, delicate strand. She immersed more cocoons in hot water and then wound together the various silk strands, resulting in a much stronger thread that, when woven, produced shimmering cloth unexcelled in the Emperor’s chest.
  • In the Old Testament, there are three references to silk, two in the Book of Ezekiel and one in Proverbs, revealing both that silk was being manufactured in the Iron Age (1200 BC – 586 BC) and that it was equated then with beauty and prosperity.

Ezekiel, 16:10: I clothed thee also with broidered work and shod thee with badgers’ skin, and I girded thee about with fine linen, and I covered thee with silk.

Ezekiel, 16:13: Thus wast thou decked with gold and silver, and thy raiment was of fine linen, and silk, and broidered work; thou didst eat fine flour, and honey, and oil: and thou wast exceeding beautiful, and thou didst prosper into a kingdom.

Proverbs, 31:22: She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.

  • Silk once defined social classes. In England during the Middle Ages it was illegal for any but the ruling classes to wear silk and even then, one could only wear certain silks according to one’s station. In 1447, the wives and unmarried daughters of men worth £20 or more were granted permission to wear “sateyn, chamelet, sarcenet or tarteron.” Almost a century later, Henry VIII forbade any man beneath a Baron’s son or knight to wear fine silk on his outer person and only “satin damask, taffetas and sarcenets” were allowed to be used for his undergarments – which were apparently subject to inspection.
  • In the 17th century, in America, the use of silk was forbidden for an entirely different reason. Silk apparel was considered immodest and extravagant, exhibiting a character unworthy of the Puritan ideals of subservience and observance. In 1662, in Northampton, Massachusetts, a young lady named Hannah Lyman, a “vivacious damsel of sixteen” was brought into court and fined ten shillings for “flaunting a silk in public.” Her “independence” and “resolution” were offensive to her community. She didn’t care. She wore the same silk dress to court that she was being fined for wearing.
  • It takes two thousand to three thousand silkworm cocoons to produce one pound of silk. A strand of silk is triangular in shape, allowing it to reflect light like no other natural fiber. A strand of silk is equivalent in strength to a piece of iron wire of similar diameter. Silk is the strongest of all natural fibers.
  • At the turn of the 20th century, silk was big business in the United States, so big that there were special trains devoted entirely to whisking imported raw silk from the west coasts of North America, where it arrived from Asia, to cities in the northeast. Raw silk was extremely valuable cargo, worth millions of dollars, and had to be transported as quickly as possible to prevent deterioration of the natural fiber. The only passengers on these trains were armed guards and these “silk trains,” as they were called, had right of way over every other train on the track. A royal train carrying Prince Albert, later King George VI, was even once sidelined in Canada to let a Silk Train pass.
  • Today, apart from being renowned as the Queen of Fabrics, as it has been for centuries, silk is considered “the ancient material of the future.” Watch this amazing TED talk by Fiorenzo Omenetto on the sustainability, biodegradability, edibility (!), and applicability of silk to modern medical and technological advances.

We owe a great deal to Lei Zu for accidentally dropping a cocoon in her tea… and revealing one of the great wonders of the world.