Origins: A brief synopsis of silken history
Long ago, the emperor Huang-di ruled China in a state of supreme wisdom and grace. Huang-di brought such advancements to China as wooden houses, writing, carts, and boats and advanced Chinese warfare through the introduction of the bow and arrow. Huang-di’s most honored first wife was the beautiful Lady Hsi-ling. One day, while enjoying her tea in her garden, a cocoon fell from the mulberry tree beside her, landing in Hsi-ling’s tea. Upon hitting the boiling water, the cocoon dissolved. Enchanted, Hsi-ling attempted to remove the dissolved cocoon from her tea. But as she began pulling the filaments out, she discovered the strand went on without end. In this fashion was sericulture born. Or so goes the legend…
At its most basic, sericulture is animal husbandry, dedicated to the selective breeding of the Bombyx mori moth. The secrets of sericulture were so closely guarded, that border guards at China were authorized to, and would carry out with extreme prejudice, the sentence of death on anyone caught attempting to smuggle silk worms, silk cocoons, moths, or mulberry trees. This sentence of death was carried out for centuries until the reign of Emperor Justinian of Byzantium, when a couple of monks managed to successfully smuggle a mulberry branch with two precious cocoons into Constantinople. In this way was sericulture introduced to Eastern Europe.
Sometime after the introduction of sericulture to Byzantium, while trading with the Byzantine empire, the Viking’s were introduced to silk, which they used in both embroidery work and as decorative trim for their garments by 800 AD for sure. We know this from the Oseberg burial mound which was uncovered in the early 1900’s in Oseberg Norway. While excavating the burial mound, remnants of silk were found—however, the linen garment the trim had been attached to had eroded to nothing. By way of the Vikings was silk first introduced to Western Europe. By way of the Oseberg burial mound, we know that silk is considerably more durable than given credit for.
In 1095, Pope Urban II called for the first great crusade to return the Holy Land from the Saracen’s to Christian control. When they returned from Jerusalem by way of Syria, the crusaders brought with them a new type of silk, woven in a combination of satin and plain weave which created tone on tone patterns, called Damask Silk for Damascus, Syria, the region most famous for it’s manufacture. In this way was silk as a true luxury item introduced en masse to the Western countries national zeitgeist, and the wearing of silk became a status symbol and expected of the wealthy classes and nobility.