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The Tao of Silk
by Valerie Sartor
2008-03-07 09:35:06
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China’s most ancient gift to the world: silk, arrived long before gunpowder, paper and printmaking. This coveted fabric predated Christ and Buddha. Durable, useful and elegant, it is one of the oldest fibers known to man. Production remained a Chinese secret for over 30 centuries –in AD 550 two enterprising Nestorian monks, risking their lives, smuggled out silkworms hidden in bamboo canes. They presented the pupas to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in Constantinople as tribute.

Silk’s discovery as a weavable material is credited to a young royal woman, the Lady Xi Ling Shi. She was the 14 year-old bride of the Emperor Huang Ti, the so-called 'Yellow Emperor'. One day in 2640BC, according to the writings of Confucius, she was sitting under a mulberry tree, drinking a cup of tea. A silk cocoon plummeted smack dab into her teacup. The astute young woman noticed that the delicate fibers unraveled in the hot liquid. Lady Xi was thus the first to unwind a silk cocoon and figure out how to use the filament to create yarn to weave cloth. This romantic legend does indeed correlate with the earliest written references to silk production in China.

“When I was a little kid we kept silk worms for fun,” my coworker Qing Xiao Hua told me one afternoon. “It was cool, watching these tiny eggs hatch into worms, and gathering mulberry leaves to feed them. My grandfather raised them on flat woven baskets that he stacked up in the corner. We kept them in our house and fed them all the time. They were ravenous, ugly, squirming creatures.”

I almost couldn’t believe Qing at first when she explained that silk -this lustrous soft fiber I love to wear, is made by a blind, flightless moth that excretes stuff out of a special tube in its head. Only the Chinese would have figured that out, with their meticulous attention to detail and nature. Exotic and rather odd, the liquid substance hardens on exposure to the air, forming twin protein based filaments coated by a gummy binding fluid called sericin, binding the two filaments together. Significantly, ancient foreigners called the Chinese Seres in homage to their silk commodities.

“A silk moth is large and useless. It lays 500 pinhead sized eggs in about 5 days and then dies,” my friend quietly explained. “One ounce of eggs produces 30,000 larvae, and they consume a ton of raw mulberry leaves for a grand total of twelve pounds of silk. We didn’t have that many but our neighbors did. They stacked up the worms in a special shed, and fed them until they started climbing on sticks to spin their cocoons. If you stand in that room with munching worms it sounds like heavy rain is falling all around you. When the cocoons had been spun my neighbors steamed the room to kill the worms. Then they deftly unraveled this silk by hand. Now, thank god, they have machines for this.”

Throughout history silk impacted significantly on global markets - just as China is doing today. The material first spread to the Romans and created frenzy. By the middle of the first century A.D., the Roman Senate was railed against women wearing indecent, immoral and quite sexy silken garments. More importantly, these imports were damaging to the Roman economy. Several edicts were passed to forbid silk clothing, but in vain. Eventually, over time, Arabs and Persians, Italian and French - all coveted and tried to copy silk. During WWII silk stocking were used as barter. After the war synthetic fabrics came into use but silk has once again become popular. Like other natural materials such as cashmere and wool silk of different quality and price is now available globally.

“In Beijing, or anywhere in large cities in South China, especially Su Zhou or Hang Zhou, my hometown, you can buy good quality silk cloth and clothing very cheaply,” Qing told me. “China exports a great deal of silk but I know where to shop for the good stuff. We’ll go to Beijing’s Silk Market; it’s called Xiu Shui, it’s on Chang An Avenue near the Yong An Li subway station. There used to be a Silk Alley but the government put up this building in 2005 and expanded the kinds of things that could be sold. The alley was full of privately owned shops; the new government building rents booths to vendors.”

We walked in this no frills multi-storied edifice. Vendors of all ages started screeching like hungry vultures; “Friend, come here, buy these soft silk blouses! Give you best price…” Merchants had much more for sale than silk. Many goods seemed cheap and of dubious quality. I saw loads of stuff: cashmere sweaters, down jackets, leather purses and shoes, weird hats, knock off watches and the usual array of brass and wood trinkets. Several booths displayed fake brands: Gucci, Dior, Maxmara, Valentino; the list was endless. No prices are set - everything is negotiable. The vendors were hungry and rapacious, clutching at my arms and wiggling provocatively.

“Ignore them,” Qing stated firmly, gripping my elbow and heading me decisively toward the escalators. “They are low quality, some are fakes and all are overpriced. You show me what you’d like; I’ll come back alone and purchase it for you. These people make a killing on dumb foreigners. Keep your wallet in your bra; the thieves are thick here.”

I found exactly what I wanted: blood red silk panties with matching chemises and six yards of cobalt blue dress fabric. Qing noted my choices; we exited and had a splendid, leisurely lunch. A week later she presented me with a bill and the silk items. “But it’s less than a third of the original prices we saw,” I exclaimed.

“In China nothing I ever as it seems; that’s why you need good friends here,” she answered with a grin, “For both business and pleasure.”

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Emanuel Paparella2008-03-07 12:09:43
Indeed, silk production in Europe began in the 13th century in Italy but not via Marco Polo as some surmise but via Byzantine experts who taught the secret of its production to the likes of St. Francis of Assisi’s father, who got filthy rich in the process. In that wonderful movie by Zeffirelli “Sister Moon, Brother Sun” we see Francis taking bundles of silk from his father’s shop and donating them to the filthy poor of Assisi. Now, that was a first! Even Marco Polo would have been surprised.

Alexandra Pereira2008-03-07 13:56:00
When I was a kid, my sister used to keep silk worms as pets also, inside a shoe box lol they were kind of disgusting... but we used to feed them with morus tree leaves. :)

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