'Queen of Textiles' is a silkworm fairy tale

Nearly every wonder of the ancient Chinese civilization has a legendary beginning, and this is clearly evident in silk, the "Queen of Textiles."
'Queen of Textiles' is a silkworm fairy tale
Fan Yibin

In Chinese legend, Leizu (right), the wife of Yellow Emperor (2698-2598 BC), was the first to breed silkworms and make silk fabric. Thus, she was worshiped by Chinese people as the Goddess of Silkworm.

Nearly every wonder of the ancient Chinese civilization has a legendary beginning, and this is clearly evident in silk, the “Queen of Textiles.”

In ancient times, people didn’t know how to make clothes out of cotton or other refined materials, so they covered themselves with animal hides, leaves or tree bark.

Primitive clothing apparel was not replaced until the arrival of the Goddess of Silkworm.

The goddess was originally a pretty and kind-hearted young girl living in a place called Xiling in Southwest China.

Unfortunately, both her parents were in ill health, so the young girl had to go out every day to gather wild fruit to feed them.

One day, she couldn’t find food anywhere and worried her parents would starve. She began to cry under a mulberry tree. Her crying was so sad and heart-wrenching that Emperor Jade in Heaven was touched and turned a deity into a worm to reside on the mulberry tree where she was crying.

The worm dropped some mulberry into the mouth of the girl, who found it both sweet and sour. When she realized that the mulberry leaf was edible, the girl was delighted and gathered some for her parents every day.

In the coming summer, the divine worm began to spin silk and built a cocoon for itself. The young girl then found the cocoon looking very pretty under the sunshine and started to draw out the silk and weave it into a piece of fabric.

Smooth and comfortable

When she had woven two large pieces of silk cloth, she gave them to her parents to wear. The silk cloth was very smooth and comfortable. It felt cool in summer and could keep them warm in winter.

So, the girl picked some worms from the mulberry tree and began to breed them at home. She eventually taught other people the skills of breeding silkworms and making silk fabric.

The Xiling King was very happy for this young girl’s invention, so he adopted her and gave her the name “Leizu.”

Later, Leizu married Yellow Emperor (2698-2598 BC) and helped him to unite China. She also encouraged the emperor to spread sericulture (silk farming) across the country.

Ever since then, Leizu has been worshiped by Chinese people as the Goddess of Silkworm.

That’s one of the legends about the origins of sericulture and silk craftsmanship in China. However, according to historical records, the origins of silk date back to 4000 BC.

In 1927, half of a silkworm cocoon was unearthed at a Xiyin Village Neolithic Site in northern China’s Shanxi Province. The cocoon was cut by a sharp knife and dated back to between 4000 and 3000 BC. Later, it was determined that the cocoon came from a domesticated silkworm called Bombyx Mori.

In 1958, a batch of silk ribbons, threads and fabric were discovered at Qianshanyang site in east China’s Zhejiang Province, which dated back to around 3000 BC.

'Queen of Textiles' is a silkworm fairy tale

Silkworm farmers of Longzheng village in Jiangsu Province pick cocoons in the harvest season. Today, although silk is produced in many other places around the world, China remains the dominant producer.

In the beginning, silk clothes, and other products, were reserved exclusively for Chinese rulers and royal families. Later, it gradually became accessible to rich people in the country. Then, silk garments also began to reach other regions in Asia.

However, it was not until the Silk Road opened during the latter half of the first millennium BC that the valuable fabric reached the West, where it soon became a popular luxury and the price of which was equal to that of gold.

Because of its popularity, the ancient Greeks and Romans at that time called China “Seres” or the Silk Country.

Silk production is a lengthy, laborious and intensive process. Because silkworms are sensitive to high temperatures and picky on their food. In east China’s Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, where there are the biggest silk producers in the country, silk can only be produced in spring and autumn each year. It usually takes around 30 days to raise silkworms from hatching eggs to spinning cocoons.

After being hatched, the larvae are scattered on large bamboo trays to grow. Since fresh mulberry leaves are the food and water of the silkworms’s diet, they must be fed day and night. Also, to prevent the silkworms from getting sick, the trays must be regularly cleaned.

After four stages of growing and molting, the silkworm picks a place to spin a cocoon.

Each cocoon is made of a continuous silk filament that is between 600 to 900 meters in length. To unwind or reel the filament, the cocoon has to be boiled to kill the pupa and then the outside end of the filament is located. As a single filament is too thin for most uses, several cocoons are reeled at the same time and with a slight twist, the filaments form a single strand. Several strands will then be twisted into an even thicker yarn.

A single silk thread comprises of up to 48 silk filaments and more than 2,000 cocoons are needed to produce one pound of silk.

In addition to its soft texture and luster, silk is a natural and healthy fiber. It is composed of 18 amino acids similar to human skin. It is capable of keeping the wearer warm in winter and cool in summer. It also breathes easily and naturally to take moisture away from the skin to keep it dry.

Little wonder that silk has long been revered as the “Queen of Textiles.”

Today, although silk is produced in many other places around the world, especially in India, Japan and Brazil, China remains the dominant producer of this magic fiber. Its annual raw silk output accounts for more than 80 percent of the world’s total.

Apart from garments, silk has also been used to make quilts, umbrellas, fans and artificial flowers. Before paper was invented, silk was used for writing and painting in China.

Because of its long history and unparalleled influence on not only China’s but world’s economy, culture and people’s lives, in 2009, China’s sericulture and silk craftsmanship was inscribed on the UNSECO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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