A documentary from the Discovery Channel
If you thought Gutenberg got there first, forget it. The Chinese did.
Here’s a two-part documentary from Chinese television on a key invention. Hat tip to John Russell
China were the innovators in the production of silk many centuries ago and managed to withhold the secrets of how the material was made. Silk therefore only traveled to the western world through the many trade posts stretching from China all the way to Europe, known as “The silk road”(although not actually just one road). Silk was grown, harvested and weaved in China and in the early years were only to be worn by Royalty as it was an extremely rare material, but as China developed their techniques it soon become available to people of “social status” /”aristocrats” then to the masses. Asia is still to this day the largest producers of silk, China being the largest then followed by India and imports travel worldwide to reach popular demands. When Europe finally did find out how to make silk the production increased in Italy for a long time, but as mentioned, today Asia are the largest producers, this could possibly be due to the combination of skilled a workforce and cheaper labour in the countries compared to other countries.
Silk is a natural(protein) fibre that is obtained from the cocoon of the silkworm which is native to China (hence their innovation in this material). The silkworm’s main food source comes from Mulberry leaves , but it is possible for different species to feed on different types of leaves and therefore produce different variations of silk raging from fine to coarser silks. Non-mulberry silks, as they are known, include Tasar, Eri and Muga silks and they have distinctive colours and properties.
Once silkworms eat the mulberry leaves and reach their full growth they then begin to spin a cocoon around themselves. After they hatch into moths the cocoons that are left behind are collected to produce silk. The cocoons are boiled in water then spun into threads and/or weaved into silk. Silkworms have been completely domesticated and do not exist in the wild, so essentially they are only bred for the production of silk.
Silk is the strongest natural fiber that there is, it is extremely versatile and strong which makes a practical material to use in many products. It is also luxurious, delicate, smooth, shiny and simply a beautiful material that can also be easily dyed and these properties make it extremely attractive to different industries.Having so many incredible qualities allows silk to be such a popular material. In both the fashion industry and interior markets silk is used in their products from clothing to fine furnishings. Silk is a popular material for clothing (for both womanswear i.e dresses and menswear i.e ties) as it can keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer and it is extremely light and flexible, so is therefore comfortable to wear. To add to the attractiveness of silk, it can be dyed different colours to fit changing fashion trends and beads or embroidery can be easily added to the fabric.
Alongside the “boom” of silk production the Chinese artwork and crafty embroidery styles also developed. Working into the silk with fine embroidery threads produced incredibly beautiful and detailed designs whither it be of people, animals/mystical creatures, flowers or objects. As an ancient form of artwork there are four major styles that developed in China which were “Su embroidery”, “Xiang embroidery”, “Yue embroidery” and “Shu embroidery” and all had slightly different techniques. “Su embroidery” was known to be very intricate, “Xiang embroidery” used many colours emphasising tonal changes,” Yue embroidery” was complicated and used very bright colours and “Shu Embroidery” was very neat. As well embroidery another popular art form developed in China and applied to silk was “silk painting” as silk was “invented” before paper so it was a popular material to paint on to.
China was fortunate enough to innovate the production of silk all thanks to the silkworm native to the country and are innovators in techniques that can be applied to silk. As a textile student I enjoy using silk as I am aware of course it’s great properties and of course it’s popularity. I can easily add my printed design onto the fabric and work on top of them to add more texture(embroidery), all things that the Chinese developed centuries ago are still being applied today.