Silk / by Jeannine Cook

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Silk has always been my favourite material, sensuous to wear yet so practical and comfortable in all weathers. It is always beautiful, whether patterned, plain, embroidered or subtly woven with textures in it.  Even its names - shantung, habutai, tussore, chiffon, taffeta, dupioni, tussah - sound exotic and alluring. One of my earliest connections with silk was the realisation that mulberry leaves, from a tree that I loved and knew well at my home in East Africa, were what feed the silk worms for 35 days, before they are ready to spin a cocoon with their continuous fine silken thread that eventually measures over a mile when it is carefully unwound, prior to being woven into cloth. White mulberry tree leaves are the favourite silk worm food.  When I moved to Europe, I was riveted one day when I was taken into a high-roofed stone building deep in the Cevennes mountains, Huge fireplaces on the ground floor transmitted heat to the very tall-ceilinged loft above, where in the dim light, I could still make out old racks and other tools. This amazing 14th century building had been a family silk-production center in previous centuries, and the fires below kept the silk worms warm in winter so that they would continue growing and spinning their extraordinary cocoons. Indeed, I was later given some Cevennes silk, and it is the most beautiful and unusual silk I have ever seen.

 Cevennes silk scarf from France (photograph J. Cook)

Cevennes silk scarf from France (photograph J. Cook)

Sarees too have always been my joy - going into a saree shop in London was like going into Aladdin's cave. The stacks of brilliantly coloured, elaborately woven or embroidered silk sarees, from India of course, but also from France, Italy and beyond were utterly captivating. It remains one of those magic moments in life for me. Similarly, silk scarves are another of my loves: I remember being taught that the test of good silk for scarves was whether one could pass the whole big scarf through a wedding ring!

 Venetian silk scarf (photograph J. Cook)

Venetian silk scarf (photograph J. Cook)

 Italian silk scarf,40 inches square, which slips easily through a ring! (photograph J. Cook)

Italian silk scarf,40 inches square, which slips easily through a ring! (photograph J. Cook)

I was thus utterly enchanted to read, in a wonderful book, "The Silk Roads: A New History of the World" by Peter Frankopan, that silk was even important currency in times past.  I quote, "silk performed a number of important roles in the ancient world apart from its value to nomadic tribes." (who were paid silk in tribute by the Chinese and who revelled in its luxury). "Under the Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), silk was used alongside coins and grain to pay troops. It was in some ways the most reliable currency: producing money in sufficient quantities was a problem."  Frankopan continues, "Grain, meanwhile, went rotten after a while. As a result, bolts of raw silk were used regularly as currency, either as pay or, in the case of one Buddhist monastery in Central Asia, as a fine for monks who broke the foundation's rules. Silk became an international currency as well as a luxury product." What fun to be paid in silk! The soldiers' wives must have been pleased.

Wild silk has always been produced, in small quantities, in China, the rest of Asia and Europe, but cultivated silk, with the silk worms being fed the mulberry leaves, produces far greater quantities of silk.

 Four of most important domesticated moths - top to botton, Bombyx mon, Hyalophora cecropia, Antheraea pernyi, Samia cynthia, From Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (1885-1892). (Image courtesy of Bibliograpisches Institut, Leipzig)

Four of most important domesticated moths - top to botton, Bombyx mon, Hyalophora cecropia, Antheraea pernyi, Samia cynthia, From Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (1885-1892). (Image courtesy of Bibliograpisches Institut, Leipzig)

Our long distant ancestors had already fallen under the spell of silk, documented as far back as 3630 BC in China, with an example found that had wrapped the body of a child in Qingtaicun, Xingyang. Recent discoveries of intricately woven and dyed silks in a tomb in Jiangxi province confirm that around 2,500 years ago, the Chinese were already employing very sophisticated weaving and dyeing methods to produce silk, whose use had already spread far beyond the Imperial Court to the general population. The Han dynasty, in particular, documented its production methods but tried to keep silk cultivation a secret from the rest of the world, just as they did for paper.  Nonetheless, despite the daunting terrain that it traverses, the Silk Road came into being due to the developing long-distance trade in this easily transportable fabric that fuelled desire universally. One of the earliest proofs of this trade in silk was found in the form of silk wrapped in the hair of an Egyptian mummy dating from the 21st Dynasty, circa 1070 BC.

 Detail of a Chinese silk embroidered handbag, 19th century. I inherited it from my Australian great-grandmother and still occasionaly use it. (photograph J.Cook)

Detail of a Chinese silk embroidered handbag, 19th century. I inherited it from my Australian great-grandmother and still occasionaly use it. (photograph J.Cook)

 Detail of 19th century embroidered silk panel that I inherited from my great-grandmother. The two parts were originally on the sleeves of a garment, I am told. (photograph J.Cook)

Detail of 19th century embroidered silk panel that I inherited from my great-grandmother. The two parts were originally on the sleeves of a garment, I am told. (photograph J.Cook)

The Indian sarees to which I alluded above also have a very long history of being used by royalty, high-ranking society and for use in important ceremonies. Indians developed sericulture from native silkworm species between 2450 and 2000 BC. Archaeologists working at Harappa and Chanhu-daro have confirmed that the Indus Valley Civilisation already had advanced techniques for silk-making at about the same time as China.

 Indian Anushka Chennai silk saree

Indian Anushka Chennai silk saree

Europeans finally learned the secrets of silk production about 550 AD, but the Romans and Greeks had been trading in this highly prized textile for centuries. Silk worms, supposedly hidden in canes, were smuggled in to Constantinople and their silk production, along with the looms, were all hidden within the Great Palace.  There, this very costly fabric was used for imperial robes and as a tool of diplomacy. Islam forbade the wearing of silk for its faithful as it was too extravagant, too feminine, too who knows what!  Soon, silk-making spread to Italy and became a huge item of trade throughout Europe.  By the Middle Ages, Valencia was another important silk exchange, with the Moriscos specializing in its production until they were expelled from Spain in 1571.

Even in North America, silk-making was attempted, with King James I introducing it in 1691, ostensibly to try to displace tobacco-growing in Virginia.  Later, in 1733, when General James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia, he tried, unsuccessfully, to grow mulberries for silk production in his newly founded port-city of Savannah.

It is small wonder that silk has such a diverse and long history.  Its allure continues today, as demonstrated, for instance, by all the Haute Couture designers who consistently use silk,year after year, for their wonderful creations. Throughout the world, despite the development of artificial fabrics, silk continues to be an amazing ingredient in the daily well-being of so many of us, delighting with its lustrous beauty and sensuous feel. It even gets used in art on occasion!

 Autumn Moon - silverpoint-silk collage. Jeannine Cook, artist

Autumn Moon - silverpoint-silk collage. Jeannine Cook, artist