A History of the World Woven Through Silk
Since its ancient beginnings in China, the storied textile’s mystique and majesty have endured. Now, we’re tracing its artisanal history av cerroasnsdsae as and civilization s to its colorful 21 st-century evolution.
A look at the regal textile’s stylish trek across continents, culminating in its most striking 21st-century patterns, textures, and techniques.
THE ANCIENT STORY GOES that a teenage empress was sipping tea under the gnarled boughs of a white mulberry tree when a cocoon dropped from a branch into the hot liquid in her cup. To her astonishment, the cocoon began to unwind, slowly revealing nearly a mile of soft filament. The empress then used the thread to weave a magical, shimmering fabric called silk. Historians, of course, dismiss the tale as myth. But most agree that sometime around 2570 BCE, the Chinese indeed discovered that the larvae of the native Bombyx mori moth produced a gossamer, nearly unbreakable, lightreflecting fiber. So striking was the fineness of it that China’s rulers insisted on utmost secrecy, even threatening death to anyone who revealed the apparent wealth they were literally growing on trees.
In its earliest days, silk was reserved for emperors and other nobles (which only added to its mystique). Chinese women mastered sericulture—the complex art of raising silkworms, cultivating white mulberry trees to feed them, and unreeling their precious cocoons—and learned to weave remarkably complex patterns like brocades and damasks. Later, they created colorful ceremonial robes from the new textile and decorated them with symbols from the natural world. Images like dragons, lions, birds, the sun, and the moon depicted their owners’ ranks.
By the 1st century BCE, China was exporting raw and woven silk, sending it by camel caravan to Persia and Rome along the mountain and desert trade routes that would become known as the Silk Road. Oasis towns blossomed as the precious cargo was handed off to middlemen on the 4,000-mile east-west journey. With each exchange, the price increased and the legend of silk grew. Elites lusted after the shimmering, status-conferring cloth and hungered for knowledge about its origins. (Romans, for example, believed silk grew on trees in mysterious Seres: “land of the silk people.”)
“Silk has always been held on a pedestal,” says Trini Callava, author of Silk
Through the Ages. “It’s been valued as a luxury for 5,000 years and has traveled organically. Every culture has embraced it and fused their own ways of life into it. And that diversity has only enhanced it.”
The Secret Gets Out
It wasn’t until the middle of the 6th century that the Chinese lost their dominion of the treasured fabric. That’s when a pair of monks reportedly used hollowed walking sticks to smuggle silkworm eggs (or possibly young larvae) out of China and into Constantinople, the capitol of the eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. For the next several hundred years, Byzantine weavers too crafted vibrant, homegrown silks, the finest of which were, once again, reserved for the ruling class. Neighboring Persia, meanwhile, also caught wind of cultivation techniques and competed with Byzantium for trade. Both used gold-wrapped threads to create intricate patterns often featuring mirror-image eagles, lions, and winged griffins encircled in rondelles. So taken were Chinese makers with the exotic images coming out of the West during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) that they mimicked the designs, and inspiration for the fabric traveled back in the direction whence it came.
In 1453, Ottoman Turks got a chance to put their mark on the trade when they seized Constantinople (renaming it Istanbul) and inherited weaving operations there and in nearby Bursa. Sultans and the opulent Topkapi Palace were draped in metallics and velvets crafted by imperial workshops. The bold Ottoman designs featured large-scale, stylized florals, including tulips, carnations, and especially pomegranates, a symbol of fertility and abundance in many ancient cultures.
Europe Catches On
Some 300 years before the fall of Constantinople, conquering Arabs introduced sericulture (including the pomegranate motif) to Sicily. From there, the silk industry migrated up the Italian peninsula to Lucca, Florence, Genoa, and Venice. It was in this region that the technology leapt forward: Italians began experimenting with dyeing methods and fabric consistency, producing a diverse range of threads with dazzling effects in plain silks and in complex brocades and lampas. They also excelled at making weighty, figured velvets incorporating gold and silver threads.
By the 15th century, King Louis XI was pining for a silk industry of his own and summoned Italian weavers to France. They set up workshops in Avignon, Nîmes, Tours, and eventually Lyon, which became—and remains—the epicenter of French silk production. Responding to changing times and trends, they crafted lighter silks in feminine, stylized floral prints—many featuring meandering ribbons, lace, and swags—as well as moiré, a pattern with a rippled, watery appearance achieved by using heat and pressure rollers, and ikat-like warp prints they called chiné a la branche.
But before long, even the French took their silk-making skills on the road. The 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted rights to French Protestants (Huguenots), spurred a large population to relocate. Many settled in Spitalfields, an area of east London, not only establishing the town as an important maker of dress silks but also setting up France and England as design rivals. English designers, in general, took a sparer approach to florals. For instance, in the mid-1700s, the prolific English pattern drawer Anna Maria Garthwaite gained a following for her signature designs featuring sprays of smaller flowers on a light background that were based on actual botanical studies.
In High Demand
The mid-18th century also marked the peak of interest in chinoiserie. Europeans had become obsessed with what they viewed as the exotic East, and textile artists responded in kind with faux Chinese and East Asian designs featuring fanciful pavilions, dragons, birds, and blooms. The craze spilled into architecture and furniture. All over Europe, gardens sprouted pagodas and boudoirs were awash in floor-toceiling Asian-inspired decor.
Meanwhile, the notoriously laborintensive silk industry took a step toward mass production. In 1804, French weaver Joseph-marie Jacquard invented an attachment that became known as the Jacquard loom. Using a series of punch cards that, in effect, programmed the loom to weave complex patterns (including photograph-like portraits), the revolutionary device eliminated the need for a weaver’s assistant. So even as artisans pushed forward with new designs like hand-embroidered textile suzani panels (from the Persian suzan, meaning needle) and brilliant ikat prints (created by resist-dyeing yarns before they’re woven), industrialization was taking hold. Traditional sericulture collapsed in Europe, wars disrupted trade, and synthetic fabrics were added to the mix. And yet, throughout the upheaval, silk maintained its singular allure. Nothing could outshine its beauty or its versatility—and nothing could top the tale of its remarkable, empires-spanning journey.
“The story of silk is the story of luxury,” says Callava. “Across cultures, it has brought a sense of nobility to all who have embraced it.”
THE EARLIEST ARTISANS A Song (Sung) Dynasty (960-1276) silk painting depicts Chinese court ladies ironing a newly woven textile.
LEFT TO RIGHT: A 1777 silk scroll painting of Chinese Empress Xiaoxian. A regal embroidered silk robe studded with coral and pearls and lined with silk damask. Silk appliqué fan depicting cranes under a peach tree from the Qianlong period (1735–1796). THE FINE ART OF THE FAR EAST A BOLD SHIFT Indian (top) and Turkish patterns were more graphic, featuring whimsical animals and stylized florals.
WEAVING IN BROCADE The high-luster fabrics, like this 18th-century upholstery, are crafted with a raised floral or figural design made with colored or metallic threads. Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’S chief mistress, had an affinity for chiné, a warp printed taffeta. POMPADOUR TAFFETA
Pretty Warp Prints 1. Tassinari & Chatel Salon des Jardins in Fond Crème; scalamandre .com. 2. Chevron Bar in Berry; brunschwig.com. 3. Taffetas Chiné Menuet in Cream; prelle.fr. 4. Soleil in Opale; brunschwig.com. THE SILKS OF SPITALFIELDS At the end of the 1600s, the London parish (far left) established itself as a Western marketplace for silks, giving rise to a delicate new style of florals. At left, a pattern by English designer Anna Maria Garthwaite.
THE “NEW” LOOM French weaver Josephmarie Jacquard revolutionized the artisan industry with a punch-card device that opened the door to more complex, sophisticated patterns.