Who invented Silk? (Invention Timeline Explained)

Silk is the most lustrous, shimmery, satiny, and luxurious natural fabric. Mulberry leaf-eating silkworms produce the fibers from their cocoons. The silk fiber extraction begins while boiling the cocoons to remove the sericin protein and release the fiber. Silk products are expensive. But it is worth the price as you can see and feel its luxuriousness. 

Who invented silk?

China credits Empress Lei Tzu, the 14-year old bride of Emperor Huangdi as the person who discovered and invented silk. This is an ancient legend written by Confucius. The clever young empress, according to the legend, was the first person to unwind the continuous fiber from a silkworm cocoon, and started sericulture, and silk weaving. 

Silk’s key contributors (and evolution)

  • Empress Lei Tzu
    Goddess of Silk

    The young empress accidentally discovered that she could extract silk fibers from silk cocoons. From the time she discovered it, she spent time in silkworm farming and perfecting the art of silk weaving with the help of her female attendants. She invented the silk reel and silk loom, important tools in the production of silk threads and weaving of silk cloths. 

  • One Buddhist monk
    The Chinese art of silk fiber reeling

    The credit for bringing silkworm eggs to India during the Gupta period goes to an unnamed Buddhist monk. The monk also brought the Chinese technique of reeling the fibers from the cocoon.

  • Koreans
    Pseudo cultural exchange

    Japan sent Koreans to China as part of their cultural exchange program. But their primary aim was to convince four young Chinese girls to come to Japan to teach them sericulture and silk weaving techniques. 

  • Two Nestorian monks
    Smuggling Bombyx mori eggs

    The Byzantine Empire got hold of the first silkworm eggs to reach Rome when two Nestorian monks smuggled them in bamboo tubes. They presented the eggs to Emperor Justinian I in Constantinople. 

  • The Arabs 
    Spreading sericulture through conquests

    The Arabs, through their various conquests, spread sericulture and silk weaving across the Mediterranean, Southern Italy, North Africa, Sicily, and Andalusia. 

When was silk invented?

Empress Lei Tzu, the bride of Yellow Emperor Huangdi, invented silk in 2640 BC. The discovery was accidental. A silkworm cocoon fell into the cup of hot tea the Empress was having. The cocoon started to unravel its continuous filament. Realizing the filament was strong, she instructed her handmaidens in the art of silk weaving. 

A brief history of silk

A silk cocoon was first found at the Yangshao culture sites in Xia Country in Shanxi, China. The silk cocoon found by archeologists, identified as Bombyx mori, was cut cleanly in half by a sharp knife. It dates back between 4000 and 3000 BC. 

On the other hand, the history of silk fabric began in China during the country’s Neolithic Age. Evidence of the oldest silk sample was found in the 8,500-year-old tombs at Jiahu in central China’s Henan Province. The sample was older than the samples discovered previously.

Old tales hinted that silkworm breeding and silk weaving also started around the area. Researchers also found out that the humid and warm climate at Jiahu is favorable to the mulberry trees’ growth, whose leaves are the sole food of silkworms. 

While the exact origin of silk fabric is not certain, China uses a popular legend about the origin of silk, as a thread and as a fabric. According to the legend written by China’s revered philosopher, Confucius, Yellow Emperor Huangdi’s wife, 14-year old Lei Tzu, was having tea near a wild mulberry bush. A silkworm cocoon fell into the cup of hot tea. Wanting to remove it from the warm drink, the Empress saw the filament starting to unroll from the cocoon. As the fiber was long, she realized that she could use it to weave cloth. She kept some of the cocoons and observed the life cycle of the silkworms.

Following the suggestion of her husband, she observed the life cycle of the silkworm. She requested the Emperor to give her a mulberry tree grove to farm the native Bombyx mori silkworms. The Empress devoted much time to studying the co-existence of the trees and the silkworms. She started raising silkworms (sericulture) and shared her learning with her attendants. Empress Lei Tzu also started the art of silk weaving. According to legend, she also invented the silk reel used to spin the silk filaments into thread, and the silk loom. For several years, only women were allowed to practice sericulture. 

No one knows whether the legend was true or not, but the discovery led to the crowning of Empress Lei Tzu as the Goddess of the Silkworm and Sericulture. You can find many altars dedicated to her all over China.

Silk timeline

  1. 2640 BC
    Accidental discovery of silk

    Empress Lei Tzu discovered that a silk cocoon comprises one continuous length of silk filament. A silkworm cocoon   fell into her hot teacup and started unraveling. 

  2. 130 BC
    Beginning of the Silk Road from East to West

    China started the Silk Road from Chang’an (Xian), and it eventually spread into one of the longest trade routes, mostly exporting high-value goods from China, particularly silk and tea. The end of the Silk Road was in ancient Rome. The trade route was 9,000 kilometers (5,500 miles) long.

  3. 300 AD
    Sericulture secret is out

    After India and Korea, Japan was the next country to start sericulture and silk weaving. The secret reached Japan when the country sent Koreans from Japan to China. Their mission was to recruit four young Chinese ladies to teach Japan plain and textured weaving techniques. 

  4. 552 AD
    Silkworm eggs reached ancient Rome

    The Byzantine Empire obtained the first silkworm eggs out of China. The eggs were smuggled by two Nestorian monks who hid the eggs in bamboo tubes. 

  5. 900 AD
    First Italian center of silk production

    Indians and Arabs and Japan contributed in the development of sericulture and silk weaving. Through their many conquests, the Arabs brought silk production in Italy, with Catanzaro in Calabria becoming the first center of silk production in Italy, and supplying silk to almost all parts of Europe.

Where was silk invented?

Silk was accidentally discovered/invented around 2700 BC in ancient China. The accidental discovery by Empress Lei Tzu happened when a silk cocoon fell on her hot tea started to unravel. The cocoon produced one continuous length of the fiber. It led her to discover and learn silkworm farming, silk weaving, and her invention of the silk reel and silk loom.

The importance of silk

  • Fit for royalty 

    In ancient China, only members of the royal court and selected high-ranking officials wore silk robes. Only the emperor can use yellow-colored silk in ancient times.

  • A high-fashion material

    Silk is a natural fiber that is durable, shiny, and lustrous. It is the epitome of luxury because of its high production cost, elegant appearance, and soft feel. While China still produces high-quality silk, France and Italy vie for the top spot in high couture silk fashion design.

  • As a biomaterial for medicine

    The medical field has been using silk for medical sutures. Today, they use regenerated silk solutions to create silk biomaterials in the form of films, sponges, and gels. With the proteins contained in silk, they use biomaterials for tissue engineering of ligaments, tendons, bones, cartilage, and wound healing.

  • A dietary supplement

    Silk fibers are rich in amino acids. Candy food products use the finest silk powder, silk amino acids, and hydrolyzed silk proteins. The latter is also used for special diets for diabetic and cardiac patients because it is easy to digest. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency created a menu for astronauts using silk proteins. 

  • An important ingredient in cosmetics

    Silk proteins contain about 18 amino acids. Cosmetic manufacturers use silk proteins as one of the main ingredients in skin moisturizers, soaps, and other skincare products, such as sun protectors, anti-wrinkle, and anti-irritant products. Some manufacturers add silk proteins to hair and massage oils. 

Silk by the numbers

  • 3,000Three thousand silkworms must eat 104 kilograms of mulberry leaves to produce one kilogram of silk.
  • 10The silk filament is thinner than human hair, so it takes about 10 filaments to produce a regular strand of silk thread. 
  • 150, 000China produces 150,000 metric tons of silk fabrics in one year. The amount represents 78 percent of the silk fabrics distributed worldwide.
  • 1,000The number represents how many yards of silk filaments you can harvest from one silkworm cocoon. 
  • 2,000China kept sericulture and the art of silk weaving a closely guarded secret for 2,000 years. They developed many techniques to produce high-quality silk, which became one of the most prized products craved by the western world. The country virtually held the silk monopoly for that long.
  • 2 to 3It takes a silkworm larva 2 to 3 days to spin one-mile worth of silk filament. 
  • 500The female Bombyx mori moth lays about 500 tiny eggs in a week before dying. 

Five facts about silk

  • The world’s strongest natural fabric

    Silk contains the proteins, such as fibroin, which give it strength. Would you believe that it is stronger and finer than Kevlar? Throughout history, silk was used as a lightweight armor. It was the first fabric used to make the first bulletproof vest in the world. The medical world uses silk for sutures.

  • A naturally temperature-regulating fabric

    Silk cocoons contain thermal insulating properties. The cocoons need this property for the silkworms’ protection against temperature changes in the environment. The silk fibers and eventually, the silk fabrics retain some of the thermal properties. So, silk feels warm in winter and cool in summer. 

  • Naturally antimicrobial and hypoallergenic material

    The natural characteristics of silk proteins, specifically sericin, silk fabrics have several unique properties. Silk is naturally hypoallergenic, perfect for people with sensitive skin, or prone to skin allergies. It is also antimicrobial. It prevents the growth of microorganisms like bacteria, fungus, and mold that cause various illnesses. 

  • Started the longest ancient trade route—the Silk Road

    The Silk Road started around 130 BC when the Han Dynasty started trade relations with nomadic states at China’s western border. They began trading various products, including tea and silk in exchange for horses. The trading route grew, with the 6,437 kilometer-Silk Road becoming the longest ancient trade route linking China, Central Asia, and Europe. 

  • Natural mosquito repellant

    You might be one of those persons who are prone to mosquito bites. Mosquitoes can penetrate through most clothing. But since silk threads are very fine, weavers produce tightly-woven silk fabrics. The tighter weave leaves almost no gap between threads, effectively preventing the mosquito from biting through the fabric. 

FAQs about silk

  • What is mulberry silk?

    Mulberry silk is the silk that silkworms produce and the fabric produced from the natural fiber. People used the term since the staple food of silkworms is mulberry leaves.  

  • What is momme?

    Traders measure silk fabrics by weight instead of by length. The unit of measurement people use is momme (mm). A silk fabric weighing 8 momme is equivalent to one ounce. The higher momme means the silk fabric is thicker. Lightweight silk is about 12 momme, while the industry standard is 19 to 22 mm. 

  • Can you hand wash silk garments?

    Silk usually requires dry cleaning. But you can still hand wash silk garments using gentle soap and cold water. Soak the garment in the solution for three minutes before agitating the garment around the water. Rinse the garment under cold water, letting the water pressure remove the soap. Roll the garment in a towel, pressing gently to remove excess water. Do not wring as it can damage the fabric. Hang the garment to air dry. 

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