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by Boonsiri Suansuk


Romantic Journeys: Splendid Silk; Royal and Holy

by Chalerm Raksanti

According to a popular legend, the Chinese dominance of ‘sericulture’ (raising silkworms) was weakened when Emperor Justinian, in the 16th century, dispatched several monks on an espionage trip to bring back silkworm eggs from China. They brought the eggs back to Constantinople in hollow canes. These were sort of the “Adam and Eve” silkworms of the West, where fine silks were produced in palace workshops.

A modest little silkworm spinning his cocoon.

The Silk Road was actually a perilous network of routes. It was hazardous to monks and pilgrims carrying Buddhist teachings between India and China, and even more treacherous to traders who intended to exchange gold, horses, jade and glass for silk. The road started from what is now X’ian in Shanghai Province, traversed a barren crust of mountains and desert across Central Asia to Antioch and Trye; the last lap to Europe and Egypt. This sector was traveled by water to other Mediterranean ports.

Few made the entire trip. Caravan loads were passed from trader to trader at each oasis and stronghold. Prices went up with each exchange. Neither civilization, West or East, knew much about the other beyond the edge of the route. Yet the patterns of silks were flavored by all the different cultures along the Road. Caravans once trudged past the Buddhist retreat of Bezeklilk, and on through the Gobi Desert. Bezeklilk lies on the northern fork of the 4,000 mile Silk Road.

A Renaissance French royal palace clock made from silk knots and braiding.

In the Middle Ages silk was woven into every conquest and trade. The rush of Islam carried silk from the Middle East across North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. The Christian Crusaders gave relics wrapped in fabulous silks to the Church. Venetians not only traded heavily, but also imported silk growers and weavers to help pioneer their own silk industry. By the 13th century the Italian silk industry was amassing the riches that helped finance the Renaissance. Some of the most beautiful and ancient Italian silk vestments are still used in churches in small Italian towns like the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta in Gandino.

By the 14th century King Louis XI took drastic steps to curb the tremendous outflow of money From France to Italy by boosting French silks with royal orders to weavers in Tours. Lyon began to flourish in the 16th century with assistance from King Francis the First. The French enticed Italian craftsmen with promises of more freedom in their work if they would work in Lyon. In the late 18th century France’s city of Lyon had 18,000 silk looms in operation.

A young Indian girl uses the “thigh reeling” method of spinning silk thread over her leg.

Across the Atlantic, sericulture got its first push in 1609 when James I of England encouraged the production of silk (and discouraged the growing of tobacco) so he could fill English looms.

Interwoven in the loom of humanity, the commerce of silk engages the rich, the poor, the old and the young. Ten and twelve year old girls in Nuapatna, India, engage in the traditional method of silk spinning which is called “thigh-reeling”. Drawing the fibers from pierced cocoons, the girls twist the strands across the leg for about one dollar a day. A young boy will begin his apprenticeship in the silk trade by performing such tasks as delivering Jacquard punch cards, which direct a mechanical loom’s movements, to the weavers’ shops.

Uygur women attend a cocoon harvest festival in Hotan, China where they show off their own silk patterns woven during the winter months.

At China’s Hang Zhou Silk Factory, the yarn is reeled, graded, color coded by a temporary dye, twisted, washed and wound into skeins. Some 35 countries produce raw silk. But compared to the manufacture, which is measured in millions of tons per year, world production of this labor intensive (and consequently expensive) cloth is slight. Silkworm growers in Japan raise their own brood on an artificial diet. The silkworm has an insatiable appetite. All are true little eating machines!

There is something miraculous in silk. Women have always believed that there is no substitute for real silk for luxurious and lustrous dresses. This queen of textiles changed the course of history in many parts of the globe and left footprints in the sands of time. All of this from the completely unassuming little silkworm.

The restored Buddhist retreat of Bezeklik, along the 4,000 mile long Silk Road.

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