What is Silk? - Ancient Chinese Clothing
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What is Silk?

silk cocoons
Silk cocoons

People make silk from the cocoons of silkworms. Have you ever seen a butterfly cocoon? It is just like that. You have to take zillions of these cocoons and unwind them carefully, and that makes long threads like spider webs, and you spin these together to make them thicker, and then weave them to make silk.

As with most cloth-making all over the world, women did most of the work to produce silk. Little girls picked mulberry leaves for the silkworms to eat. Grown women spun and wove silk. Old women fed the silkworms. Many free women did this at home, so their family could pay taxes in silk. But many other women worked as slaves in big silk factories. Chinese people used silk not just for clothing, but also for fishing lines, rope, and paper.

Silkworms will only eat fresh mulberry leaves, and for a long time mulberry trees only grew in China and Japan (and East Asia generally), and so all silk that people had in India or West Asia or Africa or in the Mediterranean or Europe had to be brought from East Asia.

Traders probably began to bring silk from East Asia to India and West Asia around 2000 BC. By the time of the Roman and Parthian Empires, silk was very popular in West Asia and around the Mediterranean and traders brought a lot of Chinese silk along the Silk Road, buying it with gold and silver, horses and glass. Because silk had to come from so far away, silk was very very expensive in West Asia, Africa, and Europe. Ordinary people could not afford to wear silk. But everyone wanted to wear silk. It was very pretty, smooth and shiny and soft, and comfortable to wear. Also it was cooler in the summertime than wool or linen.

Here's a video of women in China unwinding the cocoons

Around 600 AD, some Christian monks who had gone to China managed to smuggle out two baby mulberry trees and some silkworms under their tunics, and brought them back to West Asia. Soon these silkworms were making silk in Syria, and silk became a lot cheaper than it had been before.

When the Islamic Empire took over Syria less than a hundred years later, it also took over the silk business. Because of this, silk was generally much cheaper and more available in the Islamic Empire than it was in medieval Europe.

Learn by Doing - Silk and other cloth

Bibliography and further reading about silk:


Silk, by Claire Llewellyn (2002). Easy reading.

Eyewitness: Costume, by L. Rowland-Warne (2000). For kids, but mainly European clothing, from earliest times to modern.

World Textiles: A Concise History, by Mary Schoeser (2003). For adults.

Chinese Silk: A Cultural History, by Shelagh Vainker (2004).

Cotton cloth
Hemp cloth
Linen cloth
Wool cloth
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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Now that the weather's nice, try some of these outdoor activities! How about bicycle polo, or archery for a Medieval Islam day? Or kite flying or making a compass for a day in Medieval China? How about making a shaduf for a day in Ancient Egypt? Holding an Ancient Greek Olympic Games or a medieval European tournament? Building a Native American wickiup?