Which yarn is thinner than hair and stronger than steel?

Updated December 2020

I had written this blog somewhere last year. And my journey as a Saree blogger has only enriched and my knowledge deepened since then.

But as I was reading this post, with an intent to repurpose it, I realized that I knew zilch about textiles last year.

So many things have changed in the last one year. Circumstances, state of the economy (let’s not get started now, coz that won’t be a blog post), lifestyle, work-culture and so on…

What has remained unchanged is my determination to make this blog a success. So, read on below:

Winter, or whatever one might call it in Mumbai, we at least take the effort to remove this particular fabric from our wardrobe, which was unthinkable during summers. Most of us wear this for occasions, festivals and weddings.

Do you know which fabric i’m talking about?

Yes, some of you would have guessed it right.

It’s Silk.

Thinner and hair and stronger than steel. Unfortunately, I haven’t culled out the scientific evidence to prove it. And even though there is no scientific evidence to prove it, I find the claim quite believable.

In Mumbai, the months of November, December and Jan are the best months to dress up in all the luscious silks one might have invested in, but never really had an occasion.

Well, no sweat (no pun intended). Make the best of it now.

Let’s get a better understanding of this gorgeous, luxurious and elegant fabric.

Silks date back thousands of years. Remember Silk Route from history?

A road/highway which originated in China and passed through India, Persia and Greece to reach the Mediterranean.

(Side note: This route was heavily used by traders for silk and for many other textiles, cereals, spices and other goods known to man).

Silk is made from natural animal fibre – from the caterpillar of the domestic silkmoth called Bombyx Mori.

Do you know what Bombyx Mori feed on? Mulberry leaves – rings a bell right? Mulberry Silk?

B. Mori feed on the mulberry leaves for 6 weeks, after which they produce a protein fluid in the silk glands in their mouth. The larvae eject this fluid from their mouth – when this fluid comes in contact with air, it hardens – and that’s essentially the Silk yarn.

Isn’t it fascinating?

Each silkworm produces one yarn which is a 1 kilometre long.

One tiny insect of 3 inches produces a yarn of 1000 meters!!

I am blown away with this fact!

This hardened fluid is the cocoon of the silkworm. They wiggle their body in an 8-movement 3 lakh times and produce a yarn of 1000 meters.

The production of this kilometer long yarn is done in 72 hours. Mind is blown again!

Sericulturists (harvesters of Silk) extract this thread from the bodies of the larvae following a process of steaming, degumming and washing.

How cocoons look.
Source – Biddlesawyer.com

Silk is not just a product of silkworms.

Crickets, bees, wasps, ants, leafhoppers, beetles and even spiders produce the silk yarn.

In fact, Spider silk is also a growing market these days.

Various silkworms feed on various kinds of leaves.

Eri Silk is made from silkworms that feed on castor leaves. Also known as Ahimsa Silk, the fibres of this silk are uneven. The reason this silk is also called Ahimsa Silk is because the moths allowed to emerge before the cocoons are spun.  

Muga Silk comes from silkworms that feed on Som and Soalu plants – which are found in Assam.

Tussar Silk, another popular silk is made from the moth Antherea Mylitta and they feed on trees of Arjun and Asan again found extensively in Northeast India.

Story of the Invention of Silk

Man and Silk have had a very long relationship. And it dates back to pre – Biblical times.

Let me correct myself – Women and silk have had a long relationship. And it dates back to pre – Biblical times.

Did you know that the inventor of Silk was a woman? Yes, she was a Chinese woman.

One day, the Empress of China, Si- Ling- Chi was walking through her garden during her evening tea. As she walked, something fell into her tea.

It was a silkworm cocoon from the Mulberry tree above. As she looked up at the tree, there were several caterpillars crawling among the leaves.

Caterpillar on a mulberry leaf

She plucked the cocoon out from her tea and it unravelled forming a beautiful string.

When the King’s palace found this thread, they wove their robes out of this luxurious yarn. For years, it stayed only within the palace of the Emperor.

It is said that he wore White silk within his palace and yellow silk when he met outsiders.

Gradually, he allowed other members of the Royal family to wear this garment, which hitherto he had reserved only for himself, and his wife.

This fabric stayed only within the walls of the palace restricted only among members of the Royal Family.

The Emperor relaxed the restrictions further as other noblemen of the kingdom also started wearing silk.

In the interim, the Emperor sold the fabric to Emperors of other Asian and European nations, but never revealed the source of the fabric to them.

He wanted this invention of to be kept as a secret. In fact, there was death penalty issued to anyone who blurted this national secret and treasure.

China maintained this monopoly for more than 2500 years.

But as you know, smugglers exist in all fields. The secret was compromised through Chinese migrants who settled abroad like in countries like Korea.

Several years later, the King of Constantinople ordered two Chinese monks to bring back with them Mulberry shoot and a few worms. These monks hid them in their walking sticks as they left the country towards Europe.

This image illustrates the silk route
Silk Route – Source – Brittanica.com

Once the shoots and eggs reached Rome, the market of silk opened up to the world and Rome started importing silk from China heavily.

But I got to say that the beginning of this gigantic contribution to mankind and traders happened at the hands of a Woman- a Queen.  

Empress Si- Ling- Chi is known to have invented sericulture and also the loom on which silk is woven.

Just imagine the level of contribution she made for generations to come.

I am suddenly feeling mighty proud of the fact that it was a woman who discovered Silk.

Today, China leads the world in Silk production and produces more than 58000 tons raw silk each year – that’s 74% of the world’s total silk production.

After China, India is the largest producer as well as consumer of silks.

About 97% of raw mulberry silk from India that’s cultivated come from the 5 states of Karnataka, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.

Silk is a commercial reality now.

And the uses of Silk range from Sarees and home furnishings to even wall art.

I remember I had made repurposed my old Baluchari silk into wall art.

Silk bed sheets and pillow covers are known to give sound sleep and help prevent skin breakouts and acne. There is no scientific evidence to support it though.

Maintaining your Silks

All of us have some kind of silk in our wardrobe.

I find silk sarees to be highly manageable. Especially when they are in the form of a Kanjeevaram or a Benarasi. Read my blog on Soulful Kanjeevarams here and Bewitched by Benarasi here.

While silks are a highly durable fabric, classy and elegant pieces – and as a sustainability blogger, who encourages finding your personal style as a way to be a mindful and conscious shopper, maintaining a silk outfit can be quite easy.

One thing I got to admit, that I have never washed my silk sarees. Primarily because I have worn them quite sparingly and for short durations.

Thats me in a borrowd vintage tussar

However, one thing is an absolute no no when it comes to silks – is washing it with harsh detergents.

Just sharing a few tips on wash care of your silks:

  • A mild detergent should be good.
  • Do not wring them at all.
  • Do not keep them piled up in a wet form.
  • Dry them out on a hanger immediately.
  • Do not dry them in extreme sun as it fades the dyes.

I hope you enjoyed reading this blog as much as I enjoyed writing it.

I’d urge you to wear your silks this winter. If you are staying in Northern India, opportunities of wearing silks are so much more. Please make the most of it.

Leave a comment below to share your thoughts – I’d love to know.