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A Superficial Saunter Through Silk

October 6, 2010

Silk is one of the most expensive and versatile fabrics in the world. It is a natural material produced from the cocoon of the silk moth (bombyx mori) which feeds on the leaves of the mulberry tree. Each cocoon can produce a single thread of approximately 2 miles but this is destroyed if the emerging moth is allowed to eat through the cocoon, thus breaking the thread, before hatching normally.

  There is evidence that silk has been made for at least 4000 years, having  been found in tombs in both Egypt and China.  It was also discovered in an early Roman lady’s tomb in London. Some silk and metallic threads of her burial outfit had been preserved in her lead coffin and were discovered during archaeological investigations led by the Museum of London

The material has always been a sign of  wealth and status.  In 1527 Henry VIII carpeted a floor 110 x 30 feet with silk when he wished to impress the French ambassadors with his wealth. 

   From early times finished woven silk was exported from China via land routes known as the silk routes.  At each defined stopping place local taxes were imposed which added to its final cost in the market place.  Venice, in particular, imposed heavy levies on silk bound for France and England. 

   The Chinese imposed the death penalty on anyone attempting to smuggle silk worms out of the country though legend has it that silk cocoons were eventually smuggled out in the bamboo canes of monks.  Catherine de Medici managed to establish a successful silk industry in France, and inspired by her example and his extravagant wife, Anne of Denmark, King James I of England attempted to do the same.  He ordered a number of mulberry trees to be planted at Oatlands Palace* near Weybridge in Surrey and elsewhere to provide food for the silk worms.  However, either because of poor advice or deliberate sabotage the wrong trees (morus nigra) were planted instead of white mulberry trees ( morus alba) and the silk worms died.  Small silk mills were subsequently established in the 18th century but used imported yarn. 

   Although silk thread can be spun in a number of weights, to produce 1 kilo of silk it will take approximately 6000 silk worms who will eat through about 200 kilos  of mulberry leaves before spinning their cocoons.  Each cocoon can produce about 2 miles of thread when it is unravelled.  The silk cocoons  have to be boiled gently for about twenty minutes.  This is for two reasons: the pupae have to be killed before eating their way out of the cocoons which would destroy the thread, and secondly the water loosens the adhesive gum produced by the silk worm which holds the cocoon together whilst it is being spun. 

   During the reign of Elizabeth I a vicar invented a machine for knitting silk into stockings, an item of clothing which the queen particularly enjoyed. Although she allowed him to demonstrate his machine to her she refused  him any formal backing so he took his invention to France where it became the basis of a new industry and he made his fortune. 

The silk weaving industry in this country which made Macclesfield and Spitalfields silk famous went into decline during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the mills were closed. However, the history of silk can still be discovered in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection of textiles, at the Macclesfield Silk Museum  http://www.manchester2002-uk.com/history/victorian/maccsilkmill.html and the Museum of London, which has the recreation of the head of the Roman lady mentioned earlier. The only surviving and working silk mill is at Whitchurch, on the River Test in Hampshire. The elegant Georgian brick mill is regularly open to the public  http://www.whitchurchsilkmill.org.uk/

Down in Kent, at Lullingstone Castle near Eynesford, Lady Zoe Hart-Dyke began a small scale silk farm in the early 1930’s. Her most famous commissions were providing silk (which was woven up abroad) for the coronation robes of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen mother in 1937 and for the wedding dress and coronation robes worn by her daughter in 1947 and 1953 respectively. 

*Oatlands Palace, built by Henry VIII around 1537, was razed by Oliver Cromwell in 1650. There has been some excavation of the area, but most of it has disappeared under modern housing. Fragments of walls are all that is still visible.

From → Textiles

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