That’s what silk clothes do to you, wrap you in a cocoon of smoothness that’s nearly impossible to replicate with any other fabric
Words Aninda Sarda
Once upon a time in China, Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the great Yellow Emperor, invented the loom. The Chinese have mostly dominated the world’s silk trade ever since. Now we’re talking about say a period of roughly just over five thousand years. Wait, what? That’s right folks. Silk, a controversial symbol of luxury that organizations like PETA say you should avoid using at all, has been around since 3000BC, and that’s not just before Corona. That’s three thousand years before the birth of Jesus Christ.
Silk is defined as a natural protein fibre and while the popular version will have you believe that silk only comes from silkworms, fact is silk comes from a variety of animals. Including, believe it or not, spiders. From a textile manufacturing perspective though the silkworm would be the right answer in a multiple-choice question and answer sheet. So here’s how silk is made, and don’t cry foul for getting a précis version of the entire process. The larva of the silkworm spins a cocoon around itself during the stage of metamorphosis. The larva then hibernates inside this cocoon till it transforms into a moth. The natural protein fibre that is used to create the cocoon is actually the silk that is later woven into a fabric form. Of course, the mass manufacture of silk is somewhat different from the short and sweet stuff we just told you, but you get the basic idea don’t you?
Moving on, what makes silk special? Well, a number of things. First and foremost, the fact that it is expensive also makes it desirable and a symbol of luxury. But over and above that there are some genuine special attributes of silk. For starters, it has a lustrous sheen that is rarely seen in any other natural fibre. There’s a school of thought that actually believes that in Homer’s Odyssey (circa 700BC) when King Odysseus returns to his court in disguise, his queen Penelope asks him to describe what the king was wearing and Odysseus describes a tunic made from a cloth that shone, the king is actually referring to silk.
But back to China. The oldest example of silk has been dated at 3630BC, putting that fabric squarely in the Neolithic period, even before the invention of writing or perhaps even an evolved language form. A slightly later example was dated to 2570BC and the first known piece of text to refer to silk was on a bronze fragment that was crafted during the time of the Shang Dynasty (circa 1600 to 1050BC). Clearly, the Chinese had wormed their way through the cocoon to develop a fabric all of their own. One they treasured like gold and guarded fiercely. As a matter of fact, for the longest time ever, the right to wear silk was a sign of privilege in China and not everyone was allowed the fabric. But with the expansion of the industry itself, the use of silk became more widespread as more people beyond the aristocracy started using the fabric. Of course, if they could afford it. Silk is also supremely tough, which means it was ideal for use as fishing lines and bowstrings. The light yet tough fabric has seen some super curious usage too. It is said that the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan’s soldiers often wore silk vests under their armour and as recently as 2006, layers of silk were used to stop some types of bullets in Thailand. It is even said that the bulletproof vests used by the Thai police use silk.
Our interest in silk is less exotic, even though the fabric continues to be nearly as exotic as it was millennia ago. Its texture, its smoothness, the way it drapes itself around a body or the way it falls to the ground. These aren’t things that other fabrics can replicate. In spite of all its lightness and toughness of character, silk has a certain delicateness and finesse that is so alluring. Wear the same suit but swap that normal white shirt for a silk shirt and the whole look changes. Carrying a silk kerchief is a sign of unparalleled old-world poshness. A silk pocket square with a matching silk tie is unspeakable class. No, even after five thousand years silk continues to be the sign of luxury it always was even though it is no longer a currency of trade or worth its weight in gold. After all, it was the only fabric in human history to have had a road named after it. The fabled Silk Road.