Early History

The earliest evidence of silk dates back to more than 8,500 years ago and has been found at the early Neolithic Age tombs of Jiahu, China.

Biomolecular evidence, reported from a study, showed the existence of prehistoric silk fibroin in the tombs. Rough weaving tools and bone needles were also excavated, indicating the possibility that the Jiahu residents may have possessed basic weaving and sewing skills required for making textiles. Other evidence of silk include items found at sites of the Yangshao culture in Xia County, Shanxi, where a silk cocoon was found cut in half by a sharp knife, dating back to between 4000 and 3000 BC.

The species was identified as Bombyx mori, the domesticated silkworm. Fragments of a primitive loom can also be seen from the sites of Hemudu culture in Yuyao, Zhejiang, dated to about 4000 BC.

    Ancient Period

    The earliest extant example of a woven silk fabric is from 3630 BC, used as wrapping for the body of a child. The fabric comes from a Yangshao site in Qingtaicun at Rongyang, Henan. Similar remains of silk fabric were discovered at another Yangshao site located in Wanggou, Henan, in the year 2019. The fabric was used to wrap the body of a child placed inside a burial urn.

    Scraps of silk were found in a Liangzhu culture site at Qianshanyang in Huzhou, Zhejiang, dating back to 2700 BC. Other fragments have been recovered from royal tombs in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC).

     During the later epoch, the knowledge of silk production was spread outside of China, with the Koreans, the Japanese and, later, the Indian people gaining knowledge of sericulture and silk fabric production. Allusions to the fabric in the Old Testament show that it was known in Western Asia in biblical times.

    Scholars believe that starting in the 2nd century BC, the Chinese established a commercial network aimed at exporting silk to the West. Silk was used, for example, by the Persian court and its king, Darius III, when Alexander the Great conquered the empire.

    The Silk Road and trade (2nd–4th century)

    Numerous archaeological discoveries show that silk had become a luxury material appreciated in foreign countries well before the opening of the Silk Road by the Chinese. For example, silk has been found in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in the tomb of a mummy dating to 1070 BC.


    Both the Greeks and the Romans - the latter later than the former - spoke of the Seres, "people of silk", a term used for the inhabitants of Serica, their name for the far-off kingdom of China. According to certain historians, the first Roman contact with silk was that of the legions of the governor of Syria, Crassus. At the Battle of Carrhae, near the Euphrates, the legions were said to be so surprised by the brilliance of the banners of Parthia that they fled.


    The Silk Road toward the west was opened by the Chinese in the 2nd century AD. The main road left from Xi'an, going either to the north or south of the Taklamakan desert, one of the most arid in the world, before crossing the Pamir Mountains. The caravans that travelled this route to exchange silk with other merchants were generally sizeable, constituting 100 to 500 people, as well as camels and yaks carrying around 140 kilograms (310 lb) of merchandise. The route linked to Antioch and the coasts of the Mediterranean, about one year's travel from Xi'an. In the south, a second route went by Yemen, Burma, and India before rejoining the northern route.

    Global spread of sericulture

    (4th–16th century)

    Starting in the 4th century BC, silk began to reach the Hellenistic world by merchants who would exchange it for gold, ivory, horses or precious stones.

    Up to the frontiers of the Roman Empire, silk became a monetary standard for estimating the value of different products. Hellenistic Greece appreciated the high quality of the Chinese goods and made efforts to plant mulberry trees and breed silkworms in the Mediterranean basin, while Sassanid Persia controlled the trade of silk destined for Europe and Byzantium.

    The Greek word for "silken" was σηρικός, from Seres (Σῆρες), the name of the people from whom silk was first obtained, according to Strabo. The Greek word gave rise to the Latin 'sericum', and ultimately the Old English 'sioloc', which later developed into the Middle English 'silk'.

    The Arabs, with their widening conquests, spread sericulture across the shores of the Mediterranean, leading to the development of sericulture in North Africa, Andalusia, Sicily and Southern Italy's Calabria, which was under the Byzantine dominion.

    According to André Guillou, mulberry trees for the production of raw silk were introduced to southern Italy by the Byzantines at the end of the 9th century. Around 1050, the theme of Calabria had cultivated 24,000, mulberry trees for their foliage, with growth still ongoing.

    The interactions among Byzantine and Muslim silk-weaving centers of all levels of quality, with imitations made in Andalusia and Lucca, among other cities, have made the identification and date of rare surviving examples difficult to pinpoint.

    The sudden boom of the silk industry in the Italian state of Lucca, starting in the 11th and 12th centuries, was due to much Sicilian, Jewish, and Greek settlement, alongside many other immigrants from neighboring cities in southern Italy.

    With the loss of many Italian trading posts in the Orient, the import of Chinese styles drastically declined. In order to satisfy the demands of the rich and powerful bourgeoisie for luxury fabrics, the cities of Lucca, Genoa, Venice and Florence increase the momentum of their silk production, and were soon exporting silk to all of Europe, with 84 workshops and at least 7,000 craftsmen in Florence in 1472 alone.

    Silk in the modern day (1760–present)

    The start of the Industrial Revolution was marked by a massive boom in the textile industry in general, with remarkable technological innovations made, led by the cotton industry of Great Britain. In its early years, there were often disparities in technological innovation between different stages of fabric manufacture, which encouraged complementary innovations. For example, spinning progressed much more rapidly than weaving.

    In the 17th and 18th centuries, progress began to be made in the simplification and standardization of silk manufacture, with many advances following one after another. Bouchon and Falcon's punched card loom appeared in 1775, later improved on by Jacques de Vaucanson. Later, Joseph-Marie Jacquard improved on the designs of Falcon and Vaucanson, introducing the revolutionary Jacquard loom, which allowed a string of punched cards to be processed mechanically in the correct sequence.

    The punched cards of the Jacquard loom were a direct precursor to the modern computer, in that they gave a (limited) form of programmability.

    The Jacquard loom was immediately denounced by workers, who accused it of causing unemployment, but it soon became vital to the industry. The loom was declared as public property in 1806, and Jacquard was rewarded with a pension and a royalty on each machine. In 1834, there were a total of 2,885 Jacquard looms in Lyon alone.

    Different Types of Silk Fabric

    Mulberry Silk

    Mulberry Silk is the world’s favourite silk and accounts for around 90% of silk produced globally.

    It is so popular because it is thought to be the highest quality silk and is produced by the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori.

    Although Mulberry Silk is the most highly regarded, you can even find different qualities of Mulberry Silk.

    Spider Silk

    It’s fairly common knowledge that many species of spider produce silk in order to spin their webs and wrap up their prey.

    As well as being a very practical material for the spiders’ themselves.

    The properties of Spider Silk could actually be very useful for us humans too

    Sea Silk

    Sea Silk is an extremely fine, rare and therefore expensive type of silk. The history of most silks stems from the east, in countries such as China, India, Thailand and Bangladesh. However Sea Silk was first produced in the Mediterranean region.

     it is produced by a specific type of ‘bivalve’ mollusc, known as the ‘Pinna nobilis’.

    Eri Silk

    Eri Silk comes from a specific species of caterpillar found in North East India as well as certain parts of China and Japan. This silk’s thermal properties mean that it can keep you warm in winter and cool during summer, however it’s not commonly the silk-of-choice for fabric production, simply because it is elastic and is also heavier than other silks.

    Muga Silk

    Muga Silk is known for its natural golden colour and is specifically from the Indian state of Assam. Steeped in its own history, this blend of silk was typically preferred by Indian royalty.

    Like Mulberry Silk, Muga Silk is also made by silkworms, but these silkworms are unique because of their location in Assam.

    Updated on January 2024
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