The Magical World of Silk

03/2021

Silk might just be the most luxurious and magical of natural fibers. It was born in the East, where the secret recipe for producing silk was guarded for a long time before silk textiles and the skill of cultivating silk spread to Europe.

Silk might just be the most luxurious and magical of natural fibers. It was born in the East, where the secret recipe for producing silk was guarded for a long time before silk textiles and the skill of cultivating silk spread to Europe.

Silk is valued for its many good characteristics such as luster, softness and strength. Silk feels comfortable against the skin as its composition and moisture content resemble those of the human skin. Due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber, silk fabric refracts incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors and a great shine. Silk is also a very strong fiber for its weight, and has even been used in parachutes. However, silk can be damaged when exposed to dirt, chemicals or scorching sun.


A guarded secret

The history of silk is full of mystery and various stories are told about its invention. What is considered to be a fact today is that the method for producing silk was invented in China about 5,000 years ago, and the use of silk fabrics was initially an exclusive privilege of the Chinese Imperial Court. However, silk became commonly used among the affluent population and eventually the entire nation for hundreds of years before silk fabrics and silk production spread to Europe along the Silk Road. Even today, more than half of the world’s silk is produced in China.

Technically silk is a protein-structured fiber spun by the larvae of some moth species. When fully grown, the caterpillar spins itself a cocoon inside which it will develop into a butterfly. The cocoon is about three centimeters long and consists of a continuous silk thread about 3,000 meters long.

When reeling silk, about 500-1000 meters of continuous silk fiber can be obtained from one cocoon. As a single thread is too fine, several threads are bundled to create one raw silk thread. This precious raw silk yarn is called grège yarn. Threads unfit for reeling from the outer surface of the cocoon, as well as broken threads, can be torn and spun into yarn in the same way as cotton and wool.

Although there are about 180 species of silkworm moths, cultivated silk is almost exclusively derived from the fiber spun by the mulberry moth larvae. It eats the leaves of a white mulberry tree. Thus, the production of silk requires the cultivation of mulberry trees, and therefore silk can only be grown in the temperate zone where mulberry trees grow.

Silk moths also grow wild. Wild silk is a general term for silk obtained from cocoons collected from nature. Collecting cocoons from the wild is laborious and uncertain, so wild silk production volumes are very low compared to cultivated silk. Because the moth breaks the cocoon when it hatches, the quality of wild silk is more uneven than in cultivated silk.

New technologies open up opportunities for silk production in non-traditional ways. In California, a laboratory is already producing a silk-like protein that can be spun into yarn. However, fibers marketed as alternatives to real silk can sometimes be misleading. For example, bamboo silk is not a natural fiber obtained from bamboo, but a man-made fiber processed from bamboo cellulose, the method of which is comparable to producing viscose. It is therefore natural that silk is still considered a wonder of nature. Although silk production requires human attention and resources, the fiber itself is born in nature without human intervention.



The perfect canvas

Silk is very absorbent in relation to its weight. For the same reason, it is able to absorb an exceptional amount of color compared to other fabrics. That's why silk fabric presents patterns and colors in a particularly clear and bright way.

Before paper was invented, silk was used as a painting canvas in China. In addition to painting, silk has been traditionally dyed with the ikat technique.

Ikat fabrics are some of the oldest patterned fabrics in the world, but while the word ‘ikat’ brings to mind a pattern, the word specifically refers to a specific dyeing method that cannot be replicated for example by modern printing techniques.

In ikat dyeing, the yarns used for the fabric are dyed in advance so that they will form patterns when woven. The dyeing is carried out according to a precise calculation, and the yarns to be dyed are tied in such a way that only particular parts of the yarns will absorb color. After dyeing, the yarns are woven into fabric using a handloom.

In a typical work done with the ikat method, the patterns are not ruler-straight, but they have blurry outlines. The dyeing process requires so much patience and care that ikat has earned a nickname ‘the poetry of the loom’.

Written by Sara Karlsson


 

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