People started following the silk road some 4,000 years ago. Very few people traversed its entire length, with the notable exception of Marco Polo (1256-1323), the famous explorer. Polo noticed silk in many of the fairs and bazaars he saw while traveling through what is today the Middle East, Iran, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere. Thus silk production was clearly widespread in the middle ages of our era.
The secret to silk production is to have both silkworms and mulberry trees, preferably the white mulberry, which is the only food the silkworms, or more accurately, caterpillars, will eat. They are essentially mulberry leaf eating machines. When the caterpillars are fully grown they produce a cocoon by extruding silk from their bodies. The extrusion starts as a liquid and then solidifies after contacting air. The purpose of the cocoon is to protect the pupa, which will eventually turn into a moth, although only enough moths are allowed to develop to support the next generation of silk worms.
The cocoons are remarkable in that they are made from just one long, thin, strand of silk, and it takes know-how to unravel the single strand, which is normally about 400-500 meters in length. The strands, or threads, are eventually woven into cloth. Clothing is of course the main product made from silk, however other products have also been produced. These include ropes and such things as parachutes and maps in WWII.
In the 15th century silk production came to France, and eventually the city of Lyon (pronounced lee on), now the third largest city in France and a great place to visit, became the center of European silk production. Lyon still has an important silk museum. By 1544 about 12 thousand people were involved in silk production there, according to Dr. John Falkwell in his book “The Story of Silk”. The industry progressed steadily, and in the 1880’s there were 200,000 people employed in Lyon, a remarkable number.
With an eye on the success of the silk industry in France, King James I of England made a major effort in the 17th century to establish a silk industry both in England and in the colonies at the time (i.e., the U.S. today). These efforts never really took hold in the long term, and the silk industry in those places never came close to the level achieved in France.
Silk production is a very labor intensive effort, and in the early 20th century a combination of labor strife, and especially the invention of synthetic fabrics like rayon and nylon, largely led to the demise of the silk industry in Europe. What remains are little cottage industries here and there, as in several parts of England. The top producing country today is once again China. India also produces a lot of silk, and they are the leading producers of wild silks, that is, silk produced from wild caterpillars, in particular tussah silk, from the silk moth of the same name.
The history of silk production is long and legendary. In fact legend has it that a Chinese princess over 5,000 years ago discovered how to unravel silk when a cocoon dropped into her hot cup of tea. (Cocoons are immersed in hot water in order to remove the sort of glue produced by the insect that holds the cocoon together.) In any case it is amazing that one of the world’s most desired fabrics comes from the secretions of a caterpillar. Even more remarkable is the significant role this fabric has played in the world’s economy for over 5,000 years.