The Silk-route started 3000 years ago in China.
It was purely a coincidence that the silk-thread was discovered by Empress His Ling Shi.
Two stories explain her discovery.
In the first story she is having breakfast, when suddenly something fell in her cup of hot tea.
To her amazement, she saw it was a white cocoon that fell from a tree.
After a while two thin threads appeared of an astonishing length.
In the second story she was walking in her garden, and noticed that her mulberry trees had a strange movement in their branches.
At closer inspection she saw that it was not the leaves that moved, but hundreds of cocoons.
Both stories continue with the same result.
The Empress ordered her craftsmen to study the threads, and found them not only to be of exceptional strength, but was also delighted about its softness and luster.
That’s how the history of silk found its beginning.
Up untill today, this Empress is still honored as Goddess Yuanfei, Patron Saint of Silk.
The secret had to stay within the walls of the palace, or severe punishments were the consequences if knowledge was taken outside their grounds.
Nevertheless, Confucius (200 BC) mentions in his writings the production of Silk from China.
So, it was to be expected that the secret would escape the Empress' Palace grounds, and the wildest rumors were circulating about how this silvery thread could be made.
Some people thought it was the very leaf of the mulberry tree, or a specially cultivated flower.
Others, like high Ambassadors in China, did their utmost to get hold of this secret, and were even willing to marry the Empress’s daughter.
Expensive and exclusive fabric was highly appreciated and much asked for by Emperors of the Roman Empire and their wealthy friends, who would do anything to start the production of this technique.
Emperor Justinian ordered two Byzantine monks to go to China and spy on the process of the silk-making art, and come back with eggs of the silkworm.
This silk-route expedition was an extremely dangerous one.
As the death penalty was not an exception for exporting silkworms or even information about the processing of silk.
Nevertheless, they succeeded to smuggle their ware in the hollow of their cane and it took them many years to make the perilous journey back to Europe.
Fortunately, their secret was not discovered.
The gold-price for silk was exceptionally high. A kilo of silk at that time would have cost nowadays about 2000 euro.
That’s why it was so important for China to keep the production within their borders. And with this first "export" the start of the silk-route was a fact.
The silk-route was a dangerous journey of 10.000 km.
Reason enough to travel in large groups, called caravans.
Not only were there numerous robbers waiting for these travelers, but also sickness and death were always imminent.
It would take them as many as 6 to 8 years, to walk the distance from China, via India to Syria, and finally by boat to Rome.
Later on, the Arabs introduced Silk in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea, like Italy, France and eventually England.
To avoid the dangers of these silk-routes, Louis XI encouraged the silk industry in his own country in the 15th century. Even today you can still find proof of the silk production in Lyon.
Special weaving techniques were invented, like the one by Mr. Jacquard, who lends his name to the well known jacquard designs. (read the page about Jacquard!)
Also in Germany, especially in Nurenberg, Ulm and Regensburg, silk-centers were founded.
The demand for silk stockings by the elite in most European countries gave an extra incentive to the production.
Later on, nylon took its place, and for a long time silk would have to take second place.
In Italy the Vatican with its splendid robes, much silk was used to express the importance of their Bishops and Cardinals.
Also Royal Families all over Europe loved the splendid colors of their silk evening gowns and even today it is still in demand by exclusive designers.
The ’40’s and ‘50’s.
From 1934 – 1945 silk was indispensable for parachutes and silk-industries were working 24hrs a day.
It was strong and light and easy to pack.
Both Germans and Allies would need the silk in World War II.
A poem was found in Leland Potter's POW journal.
Little silk worm
Little silk worm - so very small,
You saved me from an awful fall.
Tho you're such an ugly thing,
I owe my life to your man made wing.
Rediscovery of Silk.
After the war, silk was almost forgotten, as synthetic material was being introduced.
It was inexpensive and easy to wear.
However, early ‘70’s silk made a comeback.
People rediscovered the exclusive qualities of silk being cool in summer and warm in winter.
With better salaries, it became more assessable and silk-painting became very popular.
Fashion today uses silk in abundance and every year the various fashion houses show their silk creations to the public.
Princess Diana’s wedding gown. In England silk is still being produced on a limited scale and the Royal British Family has the tradition to use British Silk in their Royal Wedding Gowns.
The last one being the famous wedding gown of Princess Diana.
And recently various travel agencies are offering a journey to China to explore the silk-route yourself.