Silk is the most elegant textile in the world with unparalleled grandeur, natural sheen, and inherent affinity for dyes, high absorbance, light weight, soft touch and high durability and known as the “Queen of Textiles” the world over. Sericulture or silk production has a long and colorful history unknown to most people. Historical evidence shows that silk was developed in China at least 4,500 years ago. Chinese legend gives the title Goddess of Silk to Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, who was said to have ruled China in about 3000 BC. She is credited with the introduction of silkworm rearing and the invention of the loom and its culture and weaving was a guarded secret for more than 2,500 years by the Chinese.
Silk became a precious commodity highly sought by other countries at a very early time, and it is believed that the silk trade was actually started before the Silk Road was officially opened in the second century BC. When silk was first discovered, it was reserved exclusively for the use of the ruler. It was permitted only to the emperor, his close relations and the very highest of his dignitaries.
Silk was a profitable trade commodity in China. Chinese always regarded silk as the bearer of good fortune. The inscriptions of silk worm Goddess riding a cart drawn by oxen is often found on many ancient inscriptions in China. The Romans called China as “SERES”, the country of silk. Traders from ancient Persia (now, Iran) used to bring richly coloured and fine textured silks from Chinese merchants through hazardous routes interspersed with dangerous mountainous terrains, difficult passes, dry deserts and thick forests.
The history of silk development spans through centuries and can be traced around the world’s very ancient trade route called ‘Silk Route’. By 126 BC fabulous silk from China was carried to Europe by the Silk Route’ passing through Tashkent, Baghdad, Damascus and Istanbul. The ancient caravan tract originated at Sian, followed the Great Wall of China to the North-west; bypassed in Talka Makan Desert, rose over to Pamir’s mountains, crossed Afghanistan and went on to the Levant, from there silk and spices were shipped across the Mediterranean. Since the beginning of the Christian era, silk has been the most colourful part of the world’s caravan. Even today, silk reigns supreme as an object of desire and fabric of high fashion.
It seems China kept secret of silk for centuries and traded silk against gold with affluent Western Monarchs. In spite of their secrecy, however, the Chinese were destined to lose their monopoly on silk production. Chinese emigrants smuggled silk cultivation into Korea from where the silkworm slipped into Japan, which eventually became top producer of silk. Shortly after AD 300, sericulture traveled westward and the cultivation of the silkworm was established in India.
The silk industry boomed in Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s and ruled the world silk market by producing 70% of the world’s total production. For a long period of time Japan produced the best quality silks in the world, better than those produced in China. Before World War II, the export of silk was a major source of foreign currency. In the 1920 and 30s, before nylon was invented, Japan supplied much of the silk used to make silk stockings. But from mid seventies the Japanese silk production started declining as Japanese women became interested in Western clothing. The silkworm business has virtually collapsed due to competition from China and improved quality of synthetic fibers. The Chinese silk production increased steadily to bridge the gap created due to the withdrawal of Japan. At present China is the largest producer of silk production followed by India and India is the largest consumer of silk production in the world.
Today the sericulture is being practiced in around fifty countries. China, India, Korea, Japan, Turkey Brazil and the Central Asian states have attained specialization in sericulture technology and silk production. Geographically, Asia is the main producer of silk in the world and manufactures over 95 % of the total global output.