8 Amazing Facts About Silk

Posted by Leslie Yeh on November 26, 2012

What do you usually associate with silk? The Silk Road? The idiom "smooth as silk"? Your favorite silk scarf or silk tie? Whatever it is, our knowledge of silk doesn't normally extend far beyond basic history, fabrics and fashion. But in reality, silk has one of the most illustrious and colorful histories unknown to most people. For those looking to dive a little deeper into the fascinating world of silk, here are eight little unknown facts that might surprise you.

1. Silk is as old as history itself

Can you imagine the old Chinese emperors of 3,000 BC adorning themselves in luxurious, silk garments? It's no myth--the origins of silk are as ancient as remnants of time itself according to various archaeological finds. In 1998, Chinese archaeologists digging around Xingyang City, Henan Province found fragments of the smooth and lustrous texture dating back 5,500 years and more recently, an ivory cup with a silkworm design indicates that silk production could have occurred as much as 1,000 years earlier.

2. Silk is one of most heavily guarded secrets in history

After discovering the secrets of silk, the Chinese didn't just keep the mystery under wraps--they guarded it zealously for more than 3,000 years. What was the punishment for revealing the origins of silk to the outside world? The highest form of disgrace and in extreme cases, death. Due to their efforts, Chinese silk became one of the world's most sought-after textiles, and today China remains the world's leading producer of this luxurious fabric.

3. Silk production hasn't changed for 5,000 years

Despite its impressive history spanning more than 5,000 years, the fundamental process of sericulture has remained relatively the same since the Chinese first figured out how to rear silk worms and use looms for spinning. Check out our article on silk production to learn how it's done!

4. Fake silk has existed for over 100 years

Before you make your next silk purchase, you might want to take a brief moment to double-check the quality of the fabric. In the 1890s, the first artificial silks were developed as a cheaper option to real silk; composed of cellulose fiber, these "silks" were synthetically manufactured and marketed as art silk or viscose, and in some cases passed off as real silk. For the worried consumer, a few tests can help you determine a fabric's true composition, such as rubbing the pile in your hand (real silk will warm up), burning a small piece to smell the difference in the ash or dissolving the pile in a chemical test.

5. Silk is stronger than steel in weight

Don't be fooled by its smooth, supple quality--silk is actually one of the strongest natural fibers in the world and can be stretched between 30 to 40 percent of its length before breaking. Besides being an ideal fabric for garments due to its breathable, lustrous quality, the sheer strength of the texture is making it a novel choice nowadays for fiber optic cables and biomedical devices. It has even been used to engineer ligaments and dress wounds, as the substance can eventually dissolve and be absorbed into the body.

6. Silk shimmers because silk fibers naturally refract light

Due to its composition of triangular-like prisms and structure of the fibers, silk naturally reflects light from many different angles. This inherent glow is one of the many exquisite qualities that make silk so attractive. The shine is particularly vivid when the fibers are woven into a satin material, creating a kaleidoscopic effect.

7. In its lifetime, a silk worm eats 40,000 times its weight

The cycle of the silk worm is pretty incredible when you consider how much the tiny worm consumes before eventually spinning its cocoon. The process begins when silk moths mate and lay their eggs on mulberry leaves, from which silk worms are hatched after fourteen days. From the moment they're born, the worms feed on mulberry leaves continuously, day and night. Up until pupating, the silk worm consumes about 40,000 times its own weight in fresh mulberry leaves.

8. You can be a silk farmer

It's not your everyday DIY home project, but with a great deal of patience and dedication, you can make your own silk for spinning or weaving right out of your home. First, stock up on supplies--mulberry leaves for feeding and large containers for various stages of the cycle, i.e. different chambers for spinning, breeding and hatching. Eggs are available from a number of online sources typically from late spring through fall. Under the proper care and conditions, you should start to see your eggs hatch within 7-14 days. From there, it takes 28-30 days of feeding until the worms start to spin their cocoons. Although silk worms are considered among the most difficult to breed, it can be worth it to create your own sturdy, fine fabric right from home.

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