Byzantine Silk

By 553 c.e., Byzantine had the secrets of silk and had begun production. But success came slowly while Byzantine mastered the skill China had controlled for thousands of years, and while Byzantine struggled to develop those skills, China silk remained superior, and trade with China was controlled at all points along the silk road, with individual kingdom’s controlling trade in and out of their borders.

Further evidence of China’s superiority of silk production is found in Byzantine coins being found in the Sui Dynasty (581 to 618 c.e.).  So thirty years after Byzantine started silk production, Byzantine was still buying silk from China, a trend that would continue for several hundred years into the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 c.e.).  The Byzantines traded glassware for silk and maintained a steady stream of emissaries to China, as evidenced by the accurate descriptions of geography and politics in China at the time. 

But gradually, as time passed and Byzantine confidence in silk weaving grew, Byzantine came to dominate the point where east met west, controlling the silk trade from Europe to China and inserting more of their own produced silk into the market.  Plain woven and complex damasks were already known weaving techniques, but Byzantine became particularly skilled in complex twills and polychrome weaves, ultimately creating the silk which came to be known as samite

Byzantine silks were traded heavily in Europe by way of Viking traders and French and English crusaders and pilgrims, and by the 10th century, most silks in Europe were Byzantine in origin versus Chinese.  Gradually, the silk industry began slipping further west and by the 12th century, silk weaving centers had been established in Lucca and Venice Italy, with special designation being given to weavers of samite. 

Even before Constantinople fell in 1453 to Ottoman Turks, the Byzantine silk industry had started pulling into itself, with most of its production being used to supply domestic markets, as Italy began supplying more of the silk for trade in Europe.  When the Ottoman Turks finally overran Constantinople, the Byzantine empire collapsed completely, and a true dichotomy developed in the manufacture and trade of silk, with Constantinople acting as the fulcrum between the two points: Italy now dominated silk in Europe, with China remaining the dominate source of silk east of Constantinople.