Silk is such a luxurious fabric that it’s no wonder that for nearly 3,000 years China was fascinated by it’s delicate nature – so much so that the knowledge of silk was kept hidden from the majority of the world.
If it wasn’t for the Goddess of Silk’s serendipitous (if unprovable) discovery of silk, Ancient China may never have known just how much wealth it could obtain through the unravelling of a simple, yet highly valuable, cocoon.
It was a rather ordinary day when the mythical Lady Hsi Ling Shih – the Goddess of Silk – is said to have discovered silk for the first time. She was enjoying a hot cup of tea in the imperial gardens whilst resting under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon suddenly fell into her cup. She watched and noticed the iridescent beauty of the cocoon thread as it unravelled. A single strand of silk was left as the structure of the cocoon disintegrated.
It is said that after a bit of exploration, Lady Hsi Ling Shih discovered a colony of silkworms living in the mulberry tree and was inspired to develop the practice still known today as sericulture. Though her story remains unproven, Lady Hsi Ling Shih’s role in the history of silk in fashion remains as strong as the fibre itself.
Other silk legends throughout the ages
Shortly after silk was discovered, this fine fabric became a well-kept secret throughout China. Holding a monopoly over the information needed to produce and weave bolts of silk, this ancient society gathered a great deal of wealth from silk production.
Chinese silk became highly sought after in the old world. The Persian Empire, for example, were known to wear luxurious silk scarves over their heads and tied around their necks. Though this lustrous material was reliable in stirring up feelings of excellence, it was not enough to keep Darius III, the Last King of Persia, safe from the blades of Alexander the Great.
The striking material did not go unnoticed throughout the other kingdoms of the ancient world. Such an admirable textile couldn’t have been kept hidden forever. It became sought after down the trade route eventually known as the Silk Road, which was responsible for making silk and other exceptional goods from China available throughout Asia all the way to Rome.
The Ancient Roman Empire immediately saw the value embodied in silk, and adopted this extraordinary material into their wardrobe. Throughout Roman history, we see examples of emperors cherishing silk. Very early in history, circa 218 AD, it is said that the Roman Emperor Elagabalus believed that someone as wealthy and esteemed as he could never be seen wearing the same garment twice. His solution? To wear a new silk garment each day.
Peasants of the era could be prosecuted if they were caught draped in such fine material. It was eventually ruled that only those of a high status were permitted to wear silk. It was most common to see members of the Chinese Empire in 3,000 BC wearing ornate silken robes in gold or yellow, colours that were only worn by the royal family.
Colour in general played an important role in distinguishing political status throughout the old world. The royal court of Queen Seondeok of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, circa 632 AD, was known for wearing large, draping silk robes with wide sleeves in various colours, depicting their status within the court.
While most of China was keen on keeping silk a secret, it is said that by 440 AD, a Chinese princess had hidden silkworm eggs in her hairpiece to be given to her Iranian lover, spreading silk production successfully past the borders of China.
What started as the accidental discovery of a simple cocoon quickly spread throughout neolithic China as a vital source of income for small farmers. With the development of the loom making for efficient weaving, the production of Chinese silk expanded and the demand for this ornate material made silk China’s most valuable export.
As time went on, the practices surrounding silk production were refined, making silk itself much stronger and more resilient. If one really wanted to make a statement, they would don garments of silk woven with multiple different colours, which was produced through specialised dying and weaving techniques.
By the first century AD, silk production was at its most sophisticated. Sericulturalists had learned that they could speed up or slow down the growth of silkworms by making adjustments in temperature. They’d also been experimenting with introducing different varieties of silkworms, which allowed the weavers to cultivate silk with new characteristics through crossbreeding.
Women originally held the helm of silk production, but as demand for it quickly spread throughout China, its cultivation became a family affair. The responsibilities of silk production included making sure that the silkworms always had a fresh supply of mulberry leaves to eat. The mulberry tree soon became a renowned staple throughout Chinese agriculture and was subject to special rulings surrounding its growth.
The secret of silk was a hard one to keep, as this fine fabric could hardly go unnoticed. Korea and Japan were the first countries outside of China to begin practising sericulture. By 300 AD, silk production had spread throughout Asia and into Italy.
The legend of Lady Hsi Ling Shih still reigns today as the mythical discovery of silk that so greatly impacted the legacy of China. Silk was soon traded along the Silk Road in the form of thread, bolts of fabric and finished goods. Artists and writers found it desirable in the making of banners and flags, while royalty found versatile ways of draping it on the body.
As we’ve come to know silk in the modern era, its properties have been essential to enchanting wardrobes throughout the world. While the fabric alone is stunning, its versatility must be touted as a characteristic of silk’s success. In keeping the body warm in the winter and cool in the summer, silk effortlessly becomes a key player for every fashionista – and we have Lady Hsi Ling Shih to thank.