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317

silk

OLogy Series
anthropology
card
317

silk

OLogy Series
anthropology

Silk is the finest, most luxurious cloth in the world. It is soft and shimmery, yet strong and sturdy. Long ago, silk making was also one of the world's most treasured secrets. The Chinese invented silk almost 5,000 years ago. They traded silk with far- away countries, but would not reveal the source of the precious material: the strands of a silkworm's cocoon. For thousands of years, this secret brought wealth and power to Chinese empires.

The Secret of Making Silk

Silk is soft and luxurious. Unlike most other fabrics, silk didn't come from plants. It came from an animal called the silkworm. The silkworm is the caterpillar stage of the silk moth.

Silkworms spin cocoons of fine threads, which are woven together to make silk. Collecting these threads was a huge job.

First, thousands of silk moth eggs were kept on dry, shaded racks. When the tiny silkworms hatched, they were carefully protected and fed chopped mulberry leaves. Then the silkworms were set in twig frames, where they would spin fluffy white cocoons. To keep the caterpillars inside from turning into moths, the cocoons were baked, steamed, or put in salt water. Then the cocoons were boiled to loosen the silk strands, which were twisted together to form a single thread. Weavers used these fine threads to produce silk fabric.

Chinese silks were prized for their vibrant colors and intricate patterns. What invention allowed weavers to create these patterns?

loom

printing screen

sewing machine

Are you right?

Correct!

The earliest silk weavers created the cloth by hand. Looms allowed them to weave beautiful designs into the cloth in bulk. As the Chinese shared more ideas and goods with other cultures, they began to incorporate patterns from other cultural styles.

By the time of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 to 906), silk was used for more than clothes. It was also used in:

musical instruments

fishing lines

both of these

Are you right?

Correct!

Some of the earliest stringed instruments used twisted silk for strings. Today, silk is still used to make things like clothes, sheets, and sleeping bags. It's even used in parachutes and even racing bike tires.

It takes over 2,000 silkworms to produce enough silk for one robe.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fact

A single cocoon can produce a silk strand about 3,000 feet long. Still, it takes about 2,500 silkworms to produce one pound of silk--enough for a single robe.

China's rulers threatened to punish anyone who shared the secret for making silk.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fact

Eventually, the secret did get out. In one legend, a Chinese princess crossed the border with cocoons, silkworm eggs, and mulberry seeds hidden in her headdress.

The silkworm is the only animal that spins silk.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fiction

Lots of animals spin silk, like certain kinds of spiders, bees, and ants. But silk cloth is almost always made from threads produced by silkworms.

Description: a fine, soft, shimmery cloth
Material: long strands of the silkworm's cocoon
First Invented: China, more than 5000 years ago
Characteristics: soft, strong, shimmery; cool in summer and warm in winter
Significance: Silk was a treasured material that sparked trade across Asia.
Cool Fact: The domesticated silk moth (Bombyx mori) is a blind and flightless species that can live only in captivity.

Image credits: © AMNH/D.Finnin.