Origins of Silk
Silk is said to have originated in China during the reign of the Yellow Emperor (2700-2640 B.C.E.). Legend has it that a silkworm cocoon fell into the emperor’s wife’s, Lady Hsi-Ling’s, cup one day and when she picked it out it had unraveled and she was astounded by the material’s properties. She quickly became known as the “Lady of the Silkworms” and her husband quickly capitalized on the discovery and made China the premier silk producer. It wasn’t until the aptly named “Silk Road” trade route was used that silk was spread throughout the continent during the Han dynasty (207 BCE – 220 CE).
The silk fiber is made from the cocoons of silkworms. The worms are raised on a diet of mulberry leaves (hence the luxury house Mulberry’s name) and once they form their cocoons, they are boiled alive to extract as much silk as possible per cocoon. This is also a reason why PETA disapproves of traditional silk. While farming a living creature of fiber production is not very ethical it bears noting that these worms cannot feel pain unlike animals who are farmed for skins and furs. Some designers use “Peace Silk” which is a brand of silk that allows the worms to emerge from their cocoons before using them for silk so the worm is not killed in the process.
Benefits of Silk
The very notion of silk produces a luxurious and comfortable image in most people’s minds. This is because of the fiber’s wonderful properties.
- The natural protein structure makes it a naturally hypoallergenic textile.
- Silk has temperature regulating properties which makes it ideal for garments in interchangeable climates.
- It is a breathable fabric that is robust and resists odors.
- It is easy to work with and can be woven, knit or spun without difficulty.
- Silk easily absorbs dyes and is a fantastic fashion and interiors choice for its versatility and drape. Silks can be dyed with low-impact and natural dyes.
- It is biodegradable and can be recycled.
- Handloom silks are produced using much less energy.
- Fabrics that are often made from silk include charmeuse, habotai, chiffon, taffeta, crepe de chine, dupioni, noil, tussah, and shantung, among others. (this site has information on these types of silk)
- These varying textiles are made through different weaves and production methods of the same silk fiber. It bears noting that while silk satin is a wonderful shiny weave of silk, the word “satin” just refers to the weave of the fiber. If you see “satin” on a garment it usually means polyester satin (think prom dress) just as “silky” generally means silk-like feeling and is also probably polyester satin
- Silk organza used to line couture garments
Taking Care of Silk
Many people are wary of owning silk due to the cleaning instructions listed on most silk garments. While many of them do recommend dry cleaning, you can usually hand wash and hang dry silk garments. The rich colors of silk can often bleed, so be sure to test before washing anything: Dip a cotton swab in mild laundry detergent and water, then dab it on a hidden seam to see if any dye comes off on the swab. Bright prints or colors that bleed should be dry-cleaned. Silk garments should be hung to prevent wrinkles. If in a pinch, hang up the silk garment in the bathroom while you shower and the light steam will help.