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Silk, a Chinese invention, was one of the world's first global commodities due to its high value per weight and the ease with which it could be carried, stored, and packed. Its production involved three main stages: seri-culture (the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms), silk reeling, and weaving. International trade in silk was most intense in raw silk, the product of the second stage. The more differentiated woven silk often was better supplied by local producers, and trade in cocoons, especially across long distances, was very limited.

The 3,000-year history of the silk trade started with the Silk Road, the famous overland route that traversed the heartland of the Eurasian continent, through which the Chinese secrets of silk production were gradually diffused. By the mid-fifteenth century, silk production had already become a worldwide phenomenon.

The sea route for silk trade, which led from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, then through either the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, became increasingly important after the turn of the first millennium with the shifting dominance of Muslim and Chinese traders. The most spectacular display of Chinese maritime supremacy was the grandiose expedition led by the Ming dynasty's Muslim eunuch Zheng Ho from 1400 to 1431; his sea-going junks reached Borneo, the Philippines, Ceylon, Malabar, and even East Africa. The rather abrupt withdrawal of the Ming naval presence in the Pacific waters opened the way for the arrival of the first European power, Portugal, whose ships by 1488 had found their way to East Asia by bypassing the mighty Ottoman barrier and rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

However, the initial intrusion of European navigation into the Pacific had little effect on the pattern of the world silk trade. Europe by then received its raw silk supply chiefly from Persia, largely through the overland route. Furthermore, raw silk production had also taken firm root in Southern Europe beginning in the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries France and later Italy had become the world leaders in high-quality raw silk production. Europeans did continue to look eastward for raw silk supply—for diversification, and mostly for a cheaper and lower grade of raw silk. In the early seventeenth century the British East India Company succeeded in partially diverting the raw silk exports of Persia from the caravan route to the sea route. After the mid-seventeenth century they also started using large-scale imports of raw silk from Bengal, followed in the next two centuries by Chinese raw silk through the Chinese government's restricted foreign trade port cities.

European traders also played an active role in the intermediary trade in East Asia. In the 1530s Ming China ended its century-long official tribute trade with Japan because of unresolved disputes, and also banned private trade. Using Macau, a base they seized from China in 1557, Portuguese traders launched the so-called triangular trade of Nagasaki–Macau–Canton that illicitly exchanged Japanese silver for Chinese silk. In the early seventeenth century Dutch as well as private Chinese merchants took over this transit trade, using Taiwan as an intermediary base. This transit trade started to decline towards the end of the eighteenth century as Japanese domestic raw silk production began to grow following Tokugawa Japan's 1685 import restrictions on Chinese silk.

Meanwhile, Chinese silk was gaining new ground across the Pacific in the newly colonized South and Central American markets. In 1530 Spaniards successfully introduced sericulture and silk industry into Mexico, a sector that turned out to be short-lived. As Europeans continued westward and opened the Pacific for trade, the young Mexican silk industry confronted direct competition from the Chinese industry. The Canton–Manila–Acapulco triangular trade of silver for silks between China and New Spain can be seen as a Pacific extension of the concurrent Nagasaki–Macau–Canton silver for silks exchange intermediated by the Portuguese and later the Dutch.

China's huge demand for silver resulted mainly from the Ming government's conversion to a silver standard, which provided significant arbitrage possibilities because of the gold/silver ratio discrepancies between Asia and Europe. China became a huge "suction pump," drawing silver first from Japan, then from Mexico and Peru. According to conservative estimates, fully 75 percent of the 400 million pesos of silver bound for the Philippines from 1565 to 1820 ended up in China. Chinese silk was the single most important export item to both Japan and Spanish America. In the high stage of the trade, China sent 3 or even 4 million pesos worth of silk goods a year to New Spain.

Chinese silk not only demolished nascent Mexican sericulture and severely affected the young weaving industry there, but also effectively drove out the Spanish silk products in Spanish America. The burgeoning exports of raw silk also greatly stimulated the commercialization and specialization of the Chinese economy. In particular, important silk producing, financing, and trading towns arose in the coastal regions of Ming and Qing China. The Manila–Acapulco–Canton trade waned towards the early nineteenth century after the independence of Mexico.

The evolution of a single global market started with the British engagement in the Opium War from 1839 to 1842, which forcibly opened China to foreign trade through the treaty-port system. By 1845 Chinese raw silk exports reached close to 2 million pounds. By the 1850s Japan under the treaty-port system rose to become another important raw silk exporter, following more than a century and half of successful import-substitution experience. In the first half of the nineteenth century London was an important center for global silk trade.

During the 1850s and 1860s a silkworm disease called pebrine broke out in Southern Europe and gradually spread to the Middle East. In its worst years, the seri-cultural crop in Europe declined by as much as 75 percent. At this critical juncture the British silk connection at the other end of the Eurasian continent rose to crucial importance. Between 1850 and 1860 Chinese and Japanese exports to Britain roughly quadrupled. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, French silk merchants began to import directly from China and Japan. Between the 1880s and the 1930s more than half of the raw silk used on the looms in Lyon, the world's silk weaving capital, came from East Asia. Marseilles, Lyon, and later Milan supplanted London and emerged as the world's most important trade centers of raw silk in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The mid-nineteenth century also marked the beginning of the massive diffusion of French and Italian mechanized silk-reeling technology around the world, particularly to East Asia.

By the twentieth century the U.S. silk-weaving industry, initially started off behind a postbellum tariff wall, had grown to become the world's largest. In the 1920s and 1930s the production of the U.S. silk industry exceeded that of all European countries combined. The highly mechanized, large-scale nature of the U.S. silk manufacture placed exacting demands on the quality of imported raw silk, a challenge that was most successfully met by the Japanese raw silk producers. By the mid-1910s Japan, overtaking China, became the world's largest raw silk exporter. By the 1920s and 1930s Japan supplied 75 to 90 percent of the world's total raw silk exports. By then, the bulk of the global silk trade was carried over the Pacific.

Global silk trade was dealt a devastating blow by the onset of the 1930s Great Depression. But the more lasting damage came from the rise of synthetic fibers—rayon and nylon—which could be produced at a fraction of the cost of raw silk. In the post–World War II era, silk trade and industry worldwide lost ground. In traditional centers of production such as Japan and Italy this labor-intensive industry completely disappeared during the last decades of the twentieth century, but they continued to remain important in China, India, and Central Asia, as well as in rising areas of production such as Brazil.

SEE ALSO Agriculture; Bengal; China; Colbert, Jean-Baptiste; Cotton; East India Company, British; East India Company, Dutch; East India Company, Other; Empire, British; Empire, French; Empire, Japanese; Empire, Mughal; Empire, Ottoman; Empire, Qing; Guangzhou; Imperialism; Import Substitution; India; Industrialization; Laborers, Coerced; Laborers, Contract; Levant Company; Madras; Manchuria; Mercantilism; Mexico; New York; Pakistan; Pasha, Ismaʿil; Peru; Protection Costs; Slavery and the African Slave Trade; Textiles; United Kingdom; United States; Wool.


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Debin Ma

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Silk is a lightweight, soft, durable fiber produced from the cocoons of several related species of Bombyx or Saturniidae moths native to Asia, and the thread or cloth made from this fiber. Bombyx mori, a domesticated Chinese caterpillar that feeds on mulberry leaves (morus), is widely preferred for silk production, but lower-quality silk is also produced from other species that are generally grouped as wild silk or tussah, from the Hindi word tussar. The word silk originates from the Greek serikos, thus the manufacture of raw silk is called sericulture.

An estimated 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of mulberry leaves are necessary to feed the 1,700 to 2,000 caterpillars that produce 1 pound (.45 kilograms) of raw silk. Silk production is labor-intensive. Worms need to be kept clean, warm, and supplied with fresh leaves. Once the cocoon has formed, the worms are killed, usually by steaming. The cocoon is then submerged in boiling water to remove the gummy binding agent, after which it is carefully unraveled as a single thread. Sometimes these threads are spun into yarn (thrown).

Cocoons were first processed into silk in China, where silk remnants have been dated to as early as 3630 b.c.e. India, also home to a large variety of silk fauna, is the first region outside of China known to have cultivated silk, although it is not clear whether this technology spread from China or was developed independently; references to silk in India date from about 1400 b.c.e. Silk production later spread to other Asian nations, such as Korea (ca. 1100 b.c.e.), Persia (ca. 400 b.c.e.), and Japan (ca. 100 c.e.).

Silk textiles trickled to Europe along a land route, as evidenced by biblical references in the Psalms (ca. 950 b.c.e.) and in the works of the Greek poet Homer (ca. eighth century b.c.e.). That silk was rare is apparent in the sparsity of references before Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.e.) invaded Persia in 334 b.c.e. Active use of the Silk Road, a land route from China to Europe used until the age of sail, dates from about the second century b.c.e. For centuries, Persia monopolized silk trade to the West by producing raw and woven silk, unraveling and reweaving Chinese fabrics, imitating Chinese designs in wool, and regulating any silk that passed across its borders.

In the West, silk was worn by important people in Greece, and later, the Republic of Rome, and Byzantium. War between the Persians and Romans cut off European silk supplies, so in 550 Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (482/3–565 c.e.) dispatched two Nestorian monks to China to find out how to produce silk. They returned about three years later with stolen mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs hidden in their staffs. Byzantine production was a royal monopoly until Justinian's death in 565 but then began to spread through the region.

European sericulture was limited, so Greek and Arab traders transported silk back to Europe in small boats from about the seventh century, and Moorish invasions of Spain introduced the silk industry there. The Crusades introduced many commoners to silk after knights brought back souvenirs from the Middle East.

Italy became the European capital of sericulture after 1130 when King Roger II of Sicily (1095–1154) brought weavers from the Middle East. Production on the mainland did not become significant until the mid-fifteenth century, fueling extravagant dress styles during the Italian Renaissance. Italian workers brought sericulture to southern France, but France never approached Italian production levels. Rather, by the eighteenth century the French focused on weaving, especially in Lyons. While Italian silk was regarded as of high quality, it could not be produced in sufficient quantities to replace foreign trade. Most imports were of raw silk because differing market demands made this more profitable than finished textiles.

Venice controlled European silk imports after successful conquests in the First Crusade of 1095 gave them virtual control of the Mediterranean. The Venetians carried Persian silk as the Mongols were disrupting Asian caravan trade, although demand temporarily dropped during the spread of the bubonic plague. Venetian domination lasted until 1453 when the Ottomans closed down shipping lanes and disrupted Persian silk production. Once Vasco da Gama (ca. 1469–1524) circumnavigated Africa in 1498, establishing a sea route east, Asian trade slipped to the Portuguese. Silk became an integral part of both East-West and intra-Asian commerce conducted by Europeans.

Throughout the early modern period, China, Persia, and Bengal were the most important suppliers of raw silk to Europe. Ming dynasty restrictions on trade caused Malacca (in present-day Malaysia) to become a major entrepôt for Chinese silk bound westward. Portuguese trade was fundamentally intra-Asian. Macao in southeast China was colonized by the Portuguese in 1557 to facilitate trade with Japan. Until the Spanish were banished in 1624 and the Portuguese in 1639, Japan trade consisted largely of Chinese silks purchased with New World silver, exchanged again for Japanese gold and silver. Similarly, the Spanish, who followed the Portuguese into Asia, traded New World silver for Chinese goods from a colony in Manila established in 1565. Profits were used to buy more silk and other luxuries to be brought to Europe or traded at Goa, Manila, Mexico, Peru, and Indonesia.

As a result, silk became widely available in the New World, leading to sumptuary legislation, such as a seventeenth-century Peruvian ban on blacks wearing silk. In 1718 and 1720 silk imports to the Spanish Americas were prohibited to halt the outflow of silver. Europeans brought Chinese silk to India, but there was no interest in China for Indian textiles. Rather, Indian textiles were sold in Europe, widely in Southeast Asia, and in the seventeenth century some Indian silks were used to trade for slaves in Africa.

The Dutch East India Company, the dominant trading force in seventeenth-century Asia, entered the Asian silk trade in 1604 after profiting from the captured Portuguese carrack Santa Catharina. Amsterdam became one of the most important silk markets in Europe. For much of the seventeenth century, Taiwan was an important source for Chinese silk bound for Japan, although Bengali raw silk was also sent. From 1623 Persia served as the main Dutch source for imports to Europe, but problems with the Persian shah led the Dutch to turn toward Bengal. Bengali silk came to replace Persian silk on the European market because it was of equal or better quality but could be produced more cheaply. Chinese silk remained the most desirable import.

Desire for silk spurred the English to expand into Bengal in the 1670s. Quality control was difficult and competition was stiff because Europeans were forced to deal through local brokers in Kasimabazar (the central market in Bengal). Both the Dutch and English East India companies brought European experts to Bengal to improve quality. From around 1700 to 1760 Bengali silk was an important East India Company commodity. The Bengal Revolution (1757) damaged the silk industry and caused the English to focus on obtaining silk from Canton (present-day Guangzhou) in China, even though they had expelled the Dutch completely from Bengal by 1825.

In China, sericulture generally benefited peasants by increasing the standard of living and creating cash that allowed imports of food. International demand for silk flooded the silver-based Chinese economy with New World and Japanese silver. New requirements of cash tax payments caused farmers to turn to cash crops like silk, which offered a high yield on land use and a quick return. More supply meant increased use among the Chinese populace. Once the Qing government lifted the export ban in 1683, foreign trade rose, but the larger market did not exploit the Asian producers because they fit into an already complex and sophisticated intra-Asian trade.

The Dutch brought less Chinese silk to Europe, using it for trade to Japan. The English East India Company usurped the Dutch position in China, trading through Canton after 1759. Exports increased so much that in the same year exports of raw silk were banned to keep weavers from becoming impoverished. The restrictions were partially lifted after two years but kept China from monopolizing the silk market.

Interest in Asian silk, especially woven silk, actually dropped in the eighteenth century as European production increased. Protective restrictions against imported silk were passed in the early eighteenth century in England and France. Silk became more affordable, and was used not just in clothing but also in bed hangings and covers and even wallpaper.

The Opium War (1839–1842) between China and England led to a colonial presence in China. The Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the war, facilitated silk exports, but they did not increase dramatically until foreign demand did. Rather than mechanization (although the first steam-powered filature, a silk reeling factory, dates from 1785), the spread of pebrine, a silkworm disease that ravaged European sericulture, created the need in Europe for imported raw silk, which was paid for primarily with opium.

The sharp decrease of European supplies, the establishment of industrialized silk weaving in the United States, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the lower cost to westerners from the decline of the price of silver to gold in China created a huge demand for Chinese silk, overtaking tea in 1887. Production shifted from local producers to factories, and silk became available to the middle classes, usually in smaller pieces like shawls. Chinese sericulture came to comprise 30 to 40 percent of all Chinese exports until the 1911 revolution in China.

When Western imperialism opened East Asian trade, Japan was initially at a disadvantage to China, which supplied France. But Japan supplied the growing U.S. market, and quickly improved quality, mechanized faster, and lowered production costs. In addition, Japan's proximity to the United States offered lower freight and insurance prices. The Japanese silk industry also had government support, which Chinese producers had to do without. By 1912 Japan had overtaken China as the largest exporter of silk in the world.

The commercial manufacture of rayon, originally known as "artificial silk," along with the Great Depression and World War II, caused a sharp decline in silk production. Today China is the leading producer of silk.

see also Dutch United East India Company; Gama, Vasco da; Guangzhou.


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Among the oldest known textiles, silk was produced in China as early as the mid-third millennium b.c.e. The discovery that silk filament produced by silkworms could be spun into yarns and woven into textiles was later attributed to a legendary Chinese empress who was worshipped as the Patron Diety of Weaving. This account of silk's origins is purely mythical, but it perhaps demonstrates an awareness of both the antiquity of silk production and its importance to Chinese culture. Sericulture, the term used to refer to all aspects of silk production from the raising of silkworms to the spinning of yarn and weaving of cloth, was subject to state control for many centuries, and it was forbidden to export silkworms or reveal the secrets of sericulture outside China. Bolts of silk textiles, produced to standard width and length, were used in ancient China as official trade goods, and were accepted in payment of taxes. Gradually a trade also developed in silk produced for private use and commerce.

The Silk Road, along which silk fabrics were conveyed from China to elsewhere in the ancient world, holds a special place in history. Silk fabrics were sold in such places as Greece and Rome for fabulous prices. The secret of sericulture continued to be carefully protected by the Chinese authorities, but ultimately silk production spread to other places. Rulers of countries beyond China's borders often aspired to marry Chinese princesses, in part to gain access to their knowledge of sericulture. Silk production was found in Korea as early as 200 b.c.e. and in India and Japan by c.e. 300. (Wild silk was also produced as an indigenous product in India beginning in ancient times.)

According to legend, in c.e. 553, some Nestorian Christian monks returned from China to Byzantium with silkworm eggs and a knowledge of silk production; whether this story is precisely true or not, the silk industry that was transplanted to Western Asia around that time became a major contributor to the wealth of the Byzantine Empire and a source of its leadership in the production of royal and ecclesiastical garments and furnishings. By the eighth century, sericulture had spread to northern Africa, Spain, and Sicily. Spain and Sicily became famous for weaving exquisite silks in what would later become known as jacquard designs. In the early Renaissance, silk production became well established across Italy with Lucca and Florence as major centers. Lyons, France, also became the center of a major silk-producing region. Attempts to create an industry in England struggled, however.

An attempt to establish sericulture in the American colonies in the early to mid-nineteenth century failed, in part because of technical difficulties (such as diseases afflicting silkworms), and partly due to competition from cotton. Cotton was by then a major crop and cotton spinning and weaving were important industries, better suited than silk to the climate and industrial base of the United States. Over time, silk fiber production also failed or became uneconomical everywhere in Europe, leaving China, Japan, India and Thailand as the major sources of silk fiber in the world. Italy and France continue to produce high-quality silk textiles from imported fibers. Silk textiles are also produced in commercial quantities in China, Thailand, India, and some other Asian countries. While silk accounts for only .2 percent of the global textile fiber market, raw silk is valued at about 20 times the unit price of raw cotton. Demand remains strong, and the value of this historically luxury fiber remains high, though the price varies with supply and demand, as with all commodities. Environmental stresses may be a limiting factor in silk production in the future, which would reduce supply and increase price.


Like wool, silk is a natural protein fiber. The larvae of the Bombyx mori moth, commonly known as silkworms, extrude silk fibers to form their cocoons and simultaneously secrete a gummy coating known as sericin. There are basically two kinds of silk: wild silk and cultivated silk. In both cases, silk is produced when silk moths lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars that eat either mulberry or oak leaves and then spin their cocoons, resulting in silk fibers. Spinning the cocoon takes about a month of the larva's life and yields about a mile of silk fiber, which can be spun into as much as 1,000 yards of silk yarn. Wild silkworms feed on oak leaves. Wild silk is harvested by picking cocoons left behind when the moths break free. This can result in a short and uneven staple fiber often labeled Tussah silk. Raw and Tussah silks are used in fabrics that have a more textured appearance than typical cultivated silk.

The majority of silk comes from a more controlled production process, known as sericulture, that extends over all stages of production, from the moths selected to lay eggs, to identification of the healthiest silkworms, to harvesting and processing of the best quality cocoons. Domestic silkworms are fed mulberry leaves. A selection of moths deemed the best breeding stock are allowed to break through the cocoons and become part of the next cycle of silk production. A majority of larvae are killed with dry heat to prevent the moth from breaking open the cocoons and thus retain the long natural filament characteristic of silk.

After soaking whole, unbroken cocoons in warm water to soften the gummy sericin secretion on the silk, a hand operation known as reeling combines the filaments from approximately four cocoons into one uniform filament yarn that is wound onto a reel. Reeled filaments are twisted together in a process known as throwing. Outer layers often yield broken yarns that are diverted to production of spun silk, also known as silk noil. If silk is left as raw silk (silk-in-the-gum), the sericin is not removed. However, most cultivated silk is degummed through use of a soap solution that dissolves the sericin and produces very smooth, uniform yarns. Scouring and bleaching may be necessary to get silk white enough for white or pale colors. This causes loss of weight. Weighting with metallic salts such as tin may be used to replace the weight. This practice has been found to diminish the strength and durability of silk fabrics and is required to be disclosed on the label. Dyeing is done at the yarn or at the fabric level. Some noteworthy aesthetic finishes demonstrate ways silk can be modified. Sandwashing silks produces a more faded, casual fabric that is washable. Sueded silk is a further processing of washable silks with alkali to pit the surface and raise a slight nap. Moiré calendaring creates a watermarked effect on silk taffeta and faille fabrics. The process combines an etched roller, heat and pressure to flatten ribs into the watermarked pattern called moiré.

Characteristics of Silk Textiles

Most silk cloth is made from cultivated and degummed smooth filament and therefore displays the smooth, lustrous qualities associated with the concept "silky." Silk textiles vary from very soft and fluid satins and crepes to extremely stiff and bouffant taffetas and organzas and sumptuous silk velvet. Interior furnishing textiles often produced in silk include ottoman, bengaline, repp, and tapestry.

Duppioni silk is made from the fibers of twinned cocoons growing together; the resulting thick and thin yarns are used to best advantage in a textured, linen-like

fabric called shantung. Wild silk and silk noil are spun yarns that often have sericin left in the fiber, resulting in fabrics with the appearance of a rough linen and a soft, somewhat gummy feel.

Examined microscopically, cultivated silk fibers have a triangular cross-sectional shape that contributes to a soft, deep, luster and smooth feel typical of silk. Silk has long been considered the ultimate in luxurious feel on the skin. Many synthetic fibers are engineered to emulate the look and feel of silk. Raw silk fibers are more ribbon-like, with a nearly rectangular cross-sectional shape so textiles are not as lustrous or as smooth. With removal of sericin, cultivated silk is almost white while raw and wild silk range from tan to light brown.

As a protein fiber, silk is somewhat warm and very absorbent. Silk can absorb 30 percent of its weight, and dries quickly. Since it is fairly lightweight and typically smooth, silk is often more comfortable than wool for next-to-the-skin apparel or furnishings. Like wool, silk bonds with dyes and supports a wide range of long-lasting colors. In filament form, silk is the strongest natural fiber with greater durability than cotton and fine wools. Silk has a natural elasticity that allows 20 percent elongation. Since silk is subject to water spotting and perspiration stains, silk is often dry-cleaned to avoid potential detergent and bleach damage. Silk resists dirt but can be damaged by perspiration if not cleaned often enough. Silk can also be damaged by prolonged exposure to sunlight. Filament silks wrinkle less than spun silks; both must be ironed with moderate, moist heat to avoid damage. Though resistant to fire, mildew, and moths, silk is eaten by carpet beetles.

Silk in Fashion

Silk has historically been a prestige fiber associated with high status. In ancient China it was proverbial that members of the upper classes wore silk, while commoners wore garments of hempen cloth. With the advent of silk exportation, there was such demand in Damascus and Rome that only the very wealthy could afford it. Silk was reserved for special events such as festivals, weddings, and other celebrations, and silk wall hangings and carpet were symbols of great wealth and privilege. In the eighteenth century, the clothing of the rich was often made of silk, and as fashion designers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continued to produce garments for a wealthy clientele, fashion tended to perpetrate silk's aura of luxury and prestige. More recently, businesspeople "dressing for success" have considered silk shirts, blouses, dresses, and raw silk suiting to be classic indicators of prestige.

By the 1930s, synthetic fibers were developed to give the look of silk at an affordable price. With the wartime decline of the silk industries in China and Japan, nylon took over most of the market for silk stockings, and "nylons" became commonly available. Acetate was routinely substituted for silk in prom dresses and wedding attire. Polyester, particularly microfiber, has been the most successful artificial fiber in emulating the look and sometimes almost the feel of silk at an affordable price.

By the 1990s fashion embraced silk as a fiber that should be available to most people. Silk was reinterpreted as a textile appropriate not only for special events but also for casual, everyday wear. Very important to this expansion in silk was the creation of washable silks with a somewhat faded look and sueded silks that were closer to the aesthetic of cotton. Washable silk was also discovered in home textiles for fabulous sheets, bed coverings, table coverings, and upholstery. Silk even became adopted in sportswear as people discovered that silk underwear was warm and non-itching. Raw silk also became popular for linen-like summer attire. Silk was rediscovered not only for its beautiful fabrics, but for its great comfort and affordable price (as increased production of fiber and improved processing techniques have lowered the cost of silk). Meanwhile, the growth of the craft movement and interest in wearable art has put another kind of focus on silk as a fiber that easily lends itself to creating art that is also apparel.

Common Silk Textile Uses

Silk is used primarily in apparel and interiors. The range of apparel extends from special occasion costumes to casual T-shirts and silk underwear. Considerable demand for silk for use in wearable art and craft designs has fostered development of catalog and web sourcing for silk, a textile that has become hard to find at the retail level as specialty, high-quality fabric stores have become less common throughout the country. Interior textiles are primarily upholstery, wall hangings, carpets, hand-made rugs, and sometimes wild silk wall coverings treasured for their texture. Silk flowers and plants hold a special place among interior accessories. Recently, there has been a growing demand for silk liners for sleeping bags, silk blankets and sheets. Silk is found in medical products such as dental floss, braces, and surgical sutures, prosthetic arteries, and bandages. Often wigs are made of silk. Silk is also used to make tennis racket strings, fishing lines, parachutes, and hot-air balloons. Remarkably, silk has a number of industrial uses as well, including as crosshairs in optical instruments, as a component of electrical insulation, and even as an ingredients in facial power and cream. Silk was even used in the nose cone of the Concorde jet. Nevertheless, the primary contemporary use for silk is as a fashion textile, continuing a tradition that has lasted for thousands of years.

See alsoFibers; Textiles, Chinese; Wool .


Collier, Billie J., and Phyllis G. Tortora. Understanding Textiles. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Hatch, Kathryn L. Textile Science. Minneapolis: West Publishing, 1993.

Kadolph, Sara J., and Anna L. Langford. Textiles. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2001.

Parker, Julie. All about Silk: A Fabric Dictionary and Swatchbook. Seattle, Wash.: Rain City Publishing, 1991.

Carol J. Salusso

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Silk has set the standard in luxury fabrics for several millennia. The origins of silk date back to Ancient China. Legend has it that a Chinese princess was sipping tea in her garden when a cocoon fell into her cup, and the hot tea loosened the long strand of silk. Ancient literature, however, attributes the popularization of silk to the Chinese Empress Si-Ling, to around 2600 b.c. Called the Goddess of the Silkworm, Si-Ling apparently raised silkworms and designed a loom for making silk fabrics.

The Chinese used silk fabrics for arts and decorations as well as for clothing. Silk became an integral part of the Chinese economy and an important means of exchange for trading with neighboring countries. Caravans traded the prized silk fabrics along the famed Silk Road into the Near East. By the fourth century b.c., Alexander the Great is said to have introduced silk to Europe. The popularity of silk was influenced by Christian prelates who donned the rich fabrics and adorned their altars with them. Gradually the nobility began to have their own clothing fashioned from silk fabrics as well.

Initially, the Chinese were highly protective of their secret to making silk. Indeed, the reigning powers decreed death by torture to anyone who divulged the secret of the silk-worm. Eventually, the mystery of the silk-making process was smuggled into neighboring regions, reaching Japan about a.d. 300 and India around a.d. 400. By the eighth century, Spain began producing silk, and 400 years later Italy became quite successful at making silk, with several towns giving their names to particular types of silk.

The first country to apply scientific techniques to raising silkworms was Japan, which produces some of the world's finest silk fabrics. Other countries that also produce quality silks are China, Italy, India, Spain, and France. China was the largest exporter of raw silk in the early 1990s, accounting for about 85% of the world's raw silk, worth about $800 million. Exports of China's finished silk products were about half of the world's total at about $3 billion.

Silk is highly valued because it possesses many excellent properties. Not only does it look lustrous and feel luxurious, but it is also lightweight, resilient, and extremely strongone filament of silk is stronger then a comparable filament of steel! Although fabric manufacturers have created less costly alternatives to silk, such as nylon and polyester, silk is still in a class by itself.

Raw Materials

The secret to silk production is the tiny creature known as the silkworm, which is the caterpillar of the silk moth Bombyx mori. It feeds solely on the leaves of mulberry trees. Only one other species of moth, the Antheraea mylitta, also produces silk fiber. This is a wild creature, and its silk filament is about three times heavier than that of the cultivated silkworm. Its coarser fiber is called tussah.

The life cycle of the Bombyx mori begins with eggs laid by the adult moth. The larvae emerge from the eggs and feed on mulberry leaves. In the larval stage, the Bombyx is the caterpillar known as the silkworm. The silkworm spins a protective cocoon around itself so it can safely transform into a chrysalis. In nature, the chrysalis breaks through the cocoon and emerges as a moth. The moths mate and the female lays 300 to 400 eggs. A few days after emerging from the cocoon, the moths die and the life cycle continues.

The cultivation of silkworms for the purpose of producing silk is called sericulture. Over the centuries, sericulture has been developed and refined to a precise science. Sericulture involves raising healthy eggs through the chrysalis stage when the worm is encased in its silky cocoon. The chrysalis inside is destroyed before it can break out of the cocoon so that the precious silk filament remains intact. The healthiest moths are selected for breeding, and they are allowed to reach maturity, mate, and produce more eggs.

Generally, one cocoon produces between 1,000 and 2,000 feet of silk filament, made essentially of two elements. The fiber, called fibroin, makes up between 75 and 90%, and sericin, the gum secreted by the caterpillar to glue the fiber into a cocoon, comprises about 10-25% of silk. Other elements include fats, salts, and wax. To make one yard of silk material, about 3,000 cocoons are used.


Breeding silkworms

  • 1 Only the healthiest moths are used for breeding. Their eggs are categorized, graded, and meticulously tested for infection. Unhealthy eggs are burned. The healthiest eggs may be placed in cold storage until they are ready to be hatched. Once the eggs are incubated, they usually hatch within seven days. They emerge at a mere one-eighth of an inch (3.2 mm) long and must be maintained in a carefully controlled environment. Under normal conditions, the eggs would hatch once a year in the spring when mulberry trees begin to leaf. But with the intervention of sericulturists, breeding can occur as many as three times per year.

Feeding the larva

  • 2 The silkworms feed only on the leaves of the mulberry tree. The mulberry leaves are finely chopped and fed to the voracious silkworms every few hours for 20 to 35 days. During this period the wormns increase in size to about 3.5 inches (8.9 cm). They also shed their skin, or molt, four times and change color from gray to a translucent pinkish color.

Spinning the cocoon

  • 3 When the silkworm starts to fidget and toss its head back and forth, it is preparing to spin its cocoon. The caterpillar attaches itself to either a twig or rack for support. As the worm twists its head, it spins a double strand of fiber in a figure-eight pattern and constructs a symmetrical wall around itself. The filament is secreted from each of two glands called the spinneret located under the jaws of the silkworm. The insoluble protein-like fiber is called fibroin.
  • 4 The fibroin is held together by sericin, a soluble gum secreted by the worm, which hardens as soon as it is exposed to air. The result is the raw silk fiber, called the bave. The caterpillar spins a cocoon encasing itself completely. It can then safely transform into the chrysalis, which is the pupa stage.

Stoving the chrysalis

  • 5 The natural course would be for the chrysalis to break through the protective cocoon and emerge as a moth. However, sericulturists must destroy the chrysalis so that it does not break the silk filament. This is done by stoving, or stifling, the chrysalis with heat.

The Filature

Sorting and softening the cocoons

  • 6 The filature is the factory in which the cocoons are processed into silk thread. In the filature the cocoons are sorted by various characteristics, including color and size, so that the finished product can be of uniform quality. The cocoons must then be soaked in hot water to loosen the sericin. Although the silk is about 20% sericin, only 1% is removed at this stage. This way the gum facilitates the following stage in which the filaments are combined to form silk thread, or yarn.

Reeling the filament

  • 7 Reeling may be achieved manually or automatically. The cocoon is brushed to locate the end of the fiber. It is threaded through a porcelain eyelet, and the fiber is reeled onto a wheel. Meanwhile, diligent operators check for flaws in the filaments as they are being reeled.
  • 8 As each filament is nearly finished being reeled, a new fiber is twisted onto it, thereby forming one long, continuous thread. Sericin contributes to the adhesion of the fibers to each other.

Packaging the skeins

  • 9 The end product, the raw silk filaments, are reeled into skeins. These skeins are packaged into bundles weighing 5-10 pounds (2-4 kg), called books. The books are further packaged into bales of 133 pounds (60 kg) and transported to manufacturing centers.

Forming silk yarn

  • 10 Silk thread, also called yarn, is formed by throwing, or twisting, the reeled silk. First the skeins of raw silk are categorized by color, size, and quantity. Next they are soaked in warm water mixed with oil or soap to soften the sericin. The silk is then dried.
  • 11 As the silk filaments are reeled onto bobbins, they are twisted in a particular manner to achieve a certain texture of yarn. For instance, "singles" consist of several filaments which are twisted together in one direction. They are turned tightly for sheer fabrics and loosely for thicker fabrics. Combinations of singles and untwisted fibers may be twisted together in certain patterns to achieve desired textures of fabrics such as crepe de chine, voile, or tram. Fibers may also be manufactured in different patterns for use in the nap of fabrics, for the outside, or for the inside of the fabric.
  • 12 The silk yarn is put through rollers to make the width more uniform. The yarn is inspected, weighed, and packaged. Finally, the yarn is shipped to fabric manufacturers.

Degumming thrown yarn

  • 13 To achieve the distinctive softness and shine of silk, the remaining sericin must be removed from the yarn by soaking it in warm soapy water. Degumming decreases the weight of the yarn by as much as 25%.

Finishing silk fabrics

  • 14 After degumming, the silk yarn is a creamy white color. It may next be dyed as yarn, or after the yarn has been woven into fabric. The silk industry makes a distinction between pure-dye silk and what is called weighted silk. In the pure-dye process, the silk is colored with dye, and may be finished with water-soluble substances such as starch, glue, sugar, or gelatin. To produce weighted silk, metallic substances are added to the fabric during the dying process. This is done to increase the weight lost during degumming and to add body to the fabric. If weighting is not executed properly, it can decrease the longevity of the fabric, so pure-dye silk is considered the superior product. After dyeing, silk fabric may be finished by additional processes, such as bleaching, embossing, steaming, or stiffening.

Spun Silk

Not all of the silk filament is usable for reeled silk. The leftover silk may include the brushed ends or broken cocoons. This shorter staple silk may be used for spinning silk in a manner of fabrics like cotton and linen. The quality of spun silk is slightly inferior to reeled silk in that it is a bit weaker and it tends to become fuzzy. The waste material from the spun silk can also be used for making "waste silk" or "silk noil." This coarse material is commonly used for draperies and upholstery.

The Future

Sericulture is an ancient science, and the modern age has not brought great changes to silk manufacture. Rather, man-made fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acetate have replaced silk in many instances. But many of the qualities of silk cannot be reproduced. For example, silk is stronger than an equivalent strand of steel. Some recent research has focused on the molecular structure of silk as it emerges from the silkworm, in order to better understand how new, stronger artificial fibers might be constructed. Silk spun by the silkworm starts out as a liquid secretion. The liquid passes through a brief interim state with a semi-ordered molecular structure known as nematic liquid crystal, before it solidifies into a fiber. Materials scientists have been able to manufacture durable fibers using liquid crystal source material, but only at high temperatures or under extreme pressure. Researcher are continuing to study the silkworm to determine how liquid crystal is transformed into fiber at ordinary temperatures and pressures.

Where To Learn More


Corbman, Bernard P. Textiles: Fiber to Fabric. 6th ed. McGraw-Hill, 1983.

Deshpande, Chris. Silk. Garrett Educational Corporation, 1995.

Parker, Julie. All About Silk: A Fabric Dictionary & Swatchbook. Rain City Publishing, 1992.

Scott, Philippa. The Book of Silk. Thames & Hudson, 1993.


"Chinese Exports of Silk Textiles." Daily News Record, August 23, 1994, p. 9.

Ostroff, Jim. "U.S. Textile, Apparel Firms Commend New China Pact." Daily News Record, January 19, 1994, p. 2.

Yanxi, Wang. "The Chinese Nonwovens Industry Marches towards the Year 2000." Nonwovens Industry, November 1993, p. 38.

Audra Avizienis

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R&B vocal group

For the Record

Selected discography


The five-member male R&B vocal group Silk hit the music scene in 1992 with the single Freak Me from theirfirst album, Lose Control. Produced by R&B legend Keith Sweat, the record achieved multi-platinum status. Though Freak Me was a hit, the group had to virtually reintroduce itself to the R&B market when it released its third album, Tonight, in 1999.

Silk formed in the early 1990s in Atlanta, Georgia, although the five members of the group essentially grew up together. Several members of the teamTimothy Cameron (Timzo), Jimmy Gates Jr. (Jimmy), Gary Glenn (Big G), Gary Jenkins (Lil G), and Johnathen Rasboro (John John)actually went to high school together. The five friends were influenced by such acts as gospels Kirk Franklin, pop stars Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, rocker Prince and controversial rapper Tupac. Silk made a name for itself on its first outing for its catchy five-way harmonies and sexually suggestive material. They earned an ardent following in the R&B/Urban Contemporary market, particularly among women. They fit nicely into what I call the lover man category of artists like Usher, Tyrese, and Ginuwine, HMV media store urban music buyer Roberto Gooden told Billboard in 1999.

Being discovered by producer Keith Sweat was a coup for Silk. Sweat initially signed them to his own Keia record label, a subsidiary of Elektra Records, and released Silks debut album Lose Control in 1992. Sweats title of producer gave the unknown group an advance in credibility. Silk earned fans and sold records with its overt and aggressive sexuality. The record rose to number one quickly on the Billboard top R&B albums chart. The album sold 1.8 million copies and produced three R&B top ten hits in the United States, including Freak Me, which spent eight weeks at number one in 1993. Before its second release, Silk, in 1995, the group made the switch to Elektra, where they thought they could reach beyond such overtly sexual material as Freak Me, and ultimately reach a bigger audience.

On Silk, the group made a departure from its libido-based songs. But, among fans of the groups first record, the release didnt fare well. Although it did achieve gold status in sales, even Silks Gary Jenkins knew, the public may not have been ready for the change in our approach, he told Billboard in 1999. So after touring and taking some time off to regroup, Silk pulled together again to record its third release, Tonight.

Because of the different responses they received to Lose Controland Silk, the group knew they would have to consciously push their third record in the direction they wanted it to go. We felt like we needed to go back to the mind frame we had on our first record, Gary Jenkins told Billboard. The group went back to the more sexual, sensual kind of entity our fans want from us. But they felt, too, that their thirdwhile bringing back the sexual overtoneswas still a well-balanced album. Even though were know for our sexual and sensual themes, we want to show people that there are different aspects to us beyond the Freak Me[theme], Jenkins said. Gary Glenn felt the group was ready to keep working on Tonight until it felt right to them and had the makings of a strong R&B release. R&B has gone through so many different modes in the past few years, Gary Glenn said in the groups Elektra publicity material. We wanted to come out with guns blazing. We have a rear sound. Innocent in away, but we still can make the kind of record people will be making babies to, if you know what I mean.

All the members of Silk have cited gospel and strong family and moral values as driving forces in their lives. Family is important to us, Johnathen Rasboro said in the Elektra publicity material. Family and the importance of getting an education, we try to instill that in our fans wherever we go. The paradox of religion and the sexual content of their music was clear, but Jimmy Gates Jr. tried to address it. Everything has its place, he said. We sing about love and relationships. I dont think youd want to hear a Silk record if we strayed too far from what has always given R&B its strength.

For the Record

Members include Timothy Cameron (Timzo), vocals; Jimmy Gates Jr. (Jimmy), vocals; Gary Glenn (Big G), vocals; Gary Jenkins (LiP G), vocals; Johnathen Rasboro (John John), vocals.

Group formed in Atlanta, GA, c. 1990; released debut album, Lose Control, 1992; single Freak Me was number one on the Billboard R&B chart for eight weeks in 1993; released Silk, 1995; released Tonight, 1999.

Awards: Lose Control achieved multi-platinum status; Silk achieved gold status.

Addresses: Record company Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.

To compete well in the R&B arena, Silk had to be very aware of marketing, or at least hire someone to be aware of it for them. They met Sonja Norwood, of Norwood & Norwood Management, Inc., in 1996 while on tour with Keith Sweat and Norwoods daughter, teen pop sensation Brandy. Norwood took them on before the release of Tonight in 1999. The group sought longevity in a constantly changing industry and a market that is flooded with new groups. Jenkins had a vision of how Silk wanted to model its career, he told Billboard, We look at a group like the Temptations as an example of how a group can find a niche and stick to it.

After its third release, and a conscious effort to create a sound that would fit into the sexy R&B genre and fare well with fans, the groups future looked strong. The group is coming back with a bang, Niecy Davis, operations manager at WBLX, a Mobile, Alabama, radio station told Billboard. The new single is getting a great response from our listeners because its really a chick song and their audience is mostly female, 18-34.

Selected discography

Lose Control, Elektra, 1992.

Silk, Elektra, 1995.

Tonight, Elektra, 1999.



Billboard, February 27, 1999; March 13, 1999.


Silk, Elektra Records, (May 13, 1999).

Silk, CD Now, (April 29, 1999).

Additional information was provided by Elektra Records publicity materials, 1999.

Brenna Sanchez

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One of the strongest and most luxurious fabrics in the world, silk has a long history. The cocoons, or casings, of the silk moth have been used for weaving fine fabric in China for almost five thousand years. The philosopher Confucius (551c. 479 b.c.e.) told the story of Empress Xi Ling-Shi, who had a silk cocoon drop from a mulberry tree into her cup of hot tea and discovered the cocoon's strong and very long silk filaments. It was the empress who, around 2640 b.c.e., organized the harvesting and weaving of these long strands into silk. (Most historians believe that this story about the origins of silk production is not based in fact, but they do not know the exact origins.)

At first the Chinese carefully confined production to their own use, but demand for the lustrous fabric of China's imperial court spread. Traders seeking silk soon created an overland route to China that became known as the "Silk Road." By 139 b.c.e. the Silk Road had become the world's longest highway, stretching from eastern China to the Mediterranean. For years it was the principal east-west trade route for goods and ideas.

The Chinese were careful to protect their secret methods, searching travelers at the borders for cocoons or eggs. By 200 c.e., however, Chinese immigrants established silk industries in Korea and Japan. About one hundred years later silk began to be produced in the Indian subcontinent. Later the silk moth was secretly exported to the Byzantine Empire (4761453 c.e.) in the Middle East by Persian monks, from present-day Iran, who smuggled the cocoons out in their hollow canes. They established a new silk industry in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, Turkey, under the protection of the emperor Justinian (483565 c.e.). The silk worm was only introduced to Europe in the thirteenth century when Christian crusaders (those who fought to gain control of the Holy Land from the Muslims) traveling in the Middle East brought silk weavers from Constantinople to Italy.

The silkworm is actually not a worm at all but a caterpillar. Although it is thought to be a native species of China, there are no longer any silk moths living in the wild anywhere in the world. All that exist are raised to make silk.

After the domesticated silkworms are born, they eat exclusively mulberry leaves and constantly for about a month, increasing their weight by ten thousand times and shedding their skin four times. When they have eaten enough, they begin to produce a jelly-like substance made of protein that hardens when it comes into contact with air. At the same time they produce a gum called sericin to hold the filament together. After three or four days they have spun the cocoon, which looks like a puffy white ball. In eight or nine days the cocoons are killed by steam or baking, placed in water to loosen the sericin, and unwound. The filaments average 650 to 1,000 yards long. Between five and eight of them are twisted together to make one thread.

Today China and Japan produce over half of the world's silk. Silk is known for its resiliency, elasticity, and strength.

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SILK (Heb. מֶשִׁי, meshi). Silk is mentioned once in the Bible by Ezekiel (16:10, 13) in his description of the splendid garments of the Israelite woman. The commentators identify this meshi with silk, and there may be an etymological connection between meshi and si, the Chinese word for silk, which may also be the origin of shira, shira'in, the word for silk in rabbinical literature. There is no doubt that Chinese silk was already known in Ereẓ Israel during the time of the Mishnah and Talmud and it is thought to have been brought to the Near East after the expeditions of Alexander the Great. In the Talmud silk is referred to under various names: paranda, kallakh, mitakhsa, gushkera, and sirkin (Gr. σηρικόυ; Latin, sericum). It is possible that these names were connected with the methods of weaving the silk, as explained by *Nathan b. Jehiel in his Arukh: "Kallakh, gushkera, mitakhsa shira'in, and sirikin are all species of shira paranda (i.e., silk, see Shab. 20b) but their texture differs, some being woven fine and some thick." They may, however, have distinguished between Chinese silk and silk spun by the worms of local moths; a number of species are found in Israel, the largest being the Pachypasa otus moth whose worm spins a large cocoon of white threads. The silk of this moth was already used by the early Greeks, who wove clothes from it. Possibly this is the meshi of Ezekiel, and it is apparently the kallakh mentioned in the Mishnah (Shab. 2:1) among the materials which were not to be used for making the wick for the Sabbath lamp. In ancient times Chinese silk was very expensive and only wealthy people could afford garments made from it. Even Roman nobles could not afford holoserikon, i.e., a garment wholly woven from pure silk, and in the main wore hemiserikon, which was half wool or linen. The Midrash (Eccl. R. 1:7, no. 9) states that the reward of those that love God will be "one day semisirikon garments and on the morrow holosirikon," i.e., that their prosperity will increase. The cocoons were imported from China and woven in Ereẓ Israel, and the mitakhsa is probably this raw cocoon. According to the aggadah, R. Joshua b. Hananiah, in order to prove that Israel lacked nothing, "brought mitakhsa from Gush Ḥalav" (Eccl. R. 2:8, no. 2). In Ereẓ Israel cultivating the Chinese silkworm Bombyx mori began only in the Middle Ages, after the introduction of the white *mulberry. The earliest archaeological finds of silk found in Israel are from the Byzantine period, with fragments of mixed linen and silk found at Nessana; one fragment of pure silk must have been imported. Late Byzantine and Early Islamic examples of silk are known from Avdat and Naḥal Omer. Silk fragments from these periods are also known from excavations in Jordan and Syria. Medieval examples of silk are known from Qarantal Cave 38 (9th–13th centuries c.e.), and according to the researcher Orit Shamir they were made by different techniques (double-faced tabbies, weft-faced compound twills, and lampas weaves), and some of these required very sophisticated looms.


Lewysohn, Zool, 358–9, no. 509; Krauss, Tal Arch, 1 (1910), 140–1; F.S. Bodenheimer, Animal and Man in Bible Lands (1960), 79–80; 137; J. Feliks, Animal World of the Bible (1962), 128.

[Jehuda Feliks /

Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]

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Fiber taken from the wrapping of silkworm cocoons.

Silk became an important textile product and luxury commodity in the Middle East from antiquity. Silk textiles came into the Middle East by trade from India and China. While Indian and Arab merchants sailed the Indian Ocean, Chinese merchants sent the fine cloth along the famous 4,000 mile (6,400 km) Silk Roadthrough central Asia and northern Iran to Europe. (Except for a few traders, rarely did any travel more than a short distance of the entire route.)

In the sixth century c.e., the Byzantines smuggled Chinese silk cocoons to Istanbul to begin their own mulberry groves and silkworm industry. Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq cultivated mulberry trees and silk-worms as well. Parts of the Ottoman Empire, Bursa and Mount Lebanon, were important centers of silk-cocoon farming, and their fine silk textiles were loomed throughout the empire for both trade and imperial use. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Middle Eastern silk weavers lost their trade because of French intervention during the mandate period and the appearance of increasingly inexpensive silk goods that were being produced in the industrialized nations and in Asia for world markets.

see also ottoman empire; textile industry; trade.


Owen, Roger. The Middle East in the World Economy, 18001914. London and New York: Methuen, 1981.

Quataert, Donald. "The Silk Industry of Bursa, 18801914." In Contributions à l'histoire economique et sociale de l'empire ottoman. Louvain, Belgium: Editions Peeters, 1983.

"Silk Route." Encyclopedia of Asian History. 4 vols. New York: Scribner; London: Collier Macmillan, 1988.

elizabeth thompson

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silk / silk/ • n. a fine, strong, soft, lustrous fiber produced by silkworms in making cocoons and collected to make thread and fabric. ∎  a similar fiber spun by some other insect larvae and by most spiders. ∎  [often as adj.] thread or fabric made from the fiber produced by the silkworm: a silk shirt. ∎  (silks) garments made from such fabric, esp. as worn by a jockey in the colors of a particular horse owner. ∎ Riding a cover worn over a riding hat made from a silklike fabric. ∎  any silklike threads that grow in plants, such as at the end of an ear of corn or in a milkweed pod. DERIVATIVES: silk·like / ˈsilkˌlīk/ adj.

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silk the type of something soft, rich, and luxurious. Recorded in Old English (in form sioloc, seolec) the word comes via Latin from Greek Sēres, the name given to the inhabitants of the Far Eastern countries from which silk first came overland to Europe.
Silk Road an ancient caravan route linking Xian in central China with the eastern Mediterranean. Skirting the northern edge of the Taklimakan Desert and passing through Turkestan, it covered a distance of some 6,400 km (4,000 miles). It was established during the period of Roman rule in Europe, and took its name from the silk which was brought to the west from China.
take silk become a Queen's (or King's) Counsel; a barrister of this rank has the right to wear a silk gown.
you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear proverbial saying, early 16th century; meaning that inherent nature cannot be overcome by nurture.

See also an ape's an ape, a varlet's a varlet, though they be clad in silk or scarlet.