Where Does Silk Come From?
Silk is a natural fiber harvested from the cocoons of a moth caterpillar called the mulberry silkworm. The People's Republic of China is the biggest silk producer in the world. Other major centers of silk production include India, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Iran and Thailand. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the top ten silk producers worldwide produced 412 million kilograms of raw silk in 2005.
Silk Cultivation and Production
Silk manufacture is extremely labor intensive. A single female silk moth may lay hundreds of eggs, which are incubated until they hatch. The resulting caterpillars are kept warm and fed mulberry leaves for approximately four days until they are ready to begin spinning cocoons. Harvested cocoons are soaked in boiling water to soften the cocoon, and then the cocoon fibers are spun into a continuous strand.
A single cocoon may contain as much as a mile of silk fiber. These fibers, however, are too fragile for commercial use. Three to ten strands of cocoon silk are spun together to form a single silk thread.
Silk Production and China
For centuries, silk production was a trade secret, closely guarded by the Chinese. Silk was in great demand throughout the world, and became the basis for economic trade with China. The overland trade route called the Silk Road spanned two continents, starting at Xi'an, the capital of ancient China, and ending in Rome.
Modern Silk Production
Modern silk production still involves raising mulberry silkworms by hand. There are automated processes for spinning silk threads that have reduced the price somewhat. Still, silk remains the most sought-after of all luxury textiles. Silk feels wonderful when it is worn close to the skin. It also takes dye well, and so silk garments are available in a dazzling variety of colors.