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Why is silk expensive?

Updated: May 22, 2020

We learned about sericulture and the cultivation of silkworms at high-school. I recall being completely gob-smacked by the processes behind how silk is made and I fell in love with the story of the Chinese empress wife.

Silk was invented in ancient China 3000 BC, with the earliest example of silk been found in tombs at the neolithic site Jiahu in Henan where silk was found wrapped around the body of a child in the tomb. So the myth goes (this insight being what we learned at school) one day, the wife of the Chinese empress, Lady Leizu (Hsi-Ling-Shih, Lei-Tzu) was having a cup of tea (another ancient Chinese belter) under a mulberry tree when a cocoon fell into her brew and began to unravel. She became so enamoured with the shimmering threads, she discovered their source, the Bombyx mori silkworm which is found in white mulberry. The empress soon developed sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom. Consequently, the history of silk began. The Empress of China aspired to keep sericulture a secret to maintain Chinese monopoly however it reached Korea with technological aid from China around 200 BC. In the ancient era, silk from China was the most lucrative and sought-after luxury item traded across the Eurasian continent, such as the ancient Persians who benefited economically from trade. The protein fibre of silk is composed mainly of fibroin and is produced by certain insect larvae to form cocoons. The silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm which is harvested in captivity, commonly known as sericulture. Silk is produced by several insects, but generally, the silk from moth caterpillars is used in textile manufacturing. Four of the most important domesticated silk moths are the Bombyx mori, Hyalohora cecropia, Antheraea pernyi and Samia cynthia, all of which are really beautiful creatures. If you live in the UK and you have not been to Butterfly World in Hertfordshire or any of the Butterfly farms in Wales, Thailand or China visit one as these are magical places.

The long-winded, slow, highly intensive labour process involved in sericulture is the reason why silk is expensive per metre. Next time you are shopping have a think about how the fabric and process behind how it is made. It is more intensive than a spider's web all for the sake of trapping its dinner. Sericulture is an intensive manufacturing process which unfortunately ends with the silkworm being boiled alive. The heat kills the silkworms and the water makes the cocoons easier to unravel. Silk harvest from the cocoon kills the larva so after the silkworm has spun approximately one mile of filament it's tired so completely encloses itself in a cocoon for roughly two to three days. Now, the amount of usable quality silk in each cocoon is small so as a result, about 2500 silkworms are required to produce a pound of raw silk.


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