Published: December 2007THE GENUINE ARTICLE
The Ancient Art of Chinese Silk
Photo: Silk blouse
Blouses are among the custom-made silk garments available in China.
By Laura Morelli
Photo by Mark Thiessen/NGS

With the flick of a cigarette lighter, a Shanghai merchant sets the fringe of a silk scarf ablaze. My jaw drops as the fringe singes, then disintegrates into a tiny smoldering pile of fine ash. The merchant smiles. Yes, I know the "burn test" is designed to amaze tourists and differentiate authentic silks from plastic-smelling synthetic threads that curl or melt when burned. Still, it's impressive that even in China—a country known for mass production—some things remain provably real.

Silk-making traces its roots to prehistoric China. For many centuries the Chinese closely guarded the secrets of their laborious craft. As China's main currency, silk was used to pay taxes, fines, and wages, and even to buy public office. Silk ceremonies played an important role in imperial culture. A host of Buddhist deities associated with silk and silk-making received offerings at special altars reserved for them. The Silk Road—a well-trodden system of ancient trade routes, many over treacherous terrain—brought silk to Westerners hungry for these exotic luxuries. Many observers consider silk to be one of China's greatest contributions to world civilization.

Incongruously, this luxurious fabric begins with a worm, or more accurately, a caterpillar of the species Bombyx mori. The process starts with the careful cultivation of silkworms, along with the mulberry bushes and trees that form both their habitat and diet. Sericulturists spread the sillkworms and fresh mulberry leaves on large trays stacked in special houses. There the silkworms produce a protein filament tightly wound into cocoons. Once completed, the cocoons are sorted and momentarily steamed, which kills the chrysalis, then boiled, which helps loosen the cocoon's delicate filaments. Then, the filaments are "thrown," a process in which several strands are twisted together to yield a thicker, stronger thread. The threads can then be dyed, making them ready to be woven or used in embroidery. The Chinese invented specific types of looms, as well as a host of specialized handmade implements for weaving and finishing silks. The woven silk is wound into bolts of fabric ready to use in clothing, upholstery, and many other products.

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