There was a great turnout of Friends to hear Thelma Whiston’s talk: Silken Threads. The talk gave a rich insight into the history of silk and sericulture from the time of its discovery in China at least 3,000 years ago. It also provided a wonderful background to the recent Te Papa exhibition China: Throne of Emperors. The exhibition included beautiful silk garments, some of which had been buried in tombs for centuries, yet their rich colours and intricacy of design were still stunning.

Thelma pointed out that humans have domesticated only two insects: the bee and the silk worm. The story goes that one day, when a young Chinese princess was drinking tea under a mulberry tree, a silk worm cocoon fell into her cup.  She was fascinated to find that she could unwind a silky thread from inside the warm moist cocoon, a discovery which led to the establishment of China’s silk industry.

China managed to guard the secret of the silk worm for over 2,000 years until, legend has it, silk worm eggs were smuggled out by two Byzantine monks about 550 CE. Initially the fact that silk worms ate only the leaves of white-fruited mulberry trees, rejecting the black varieties, eluded the smugglers, further delaying silk production outside China. Eventually the secret was out and silk clothing was treasured in the ancient Egyptian, Roman and Ottoman empires. Silk’s almost magical ability to take dyes and its luxurious texture have made it desirable ever since.

Today China continues to be the world’s leading producer of silk and production is still increasing. New uses for silk are continually being worked on, particularly in medicine. Thelma also revealed that the silk worm is not the only natural source of strong silken thread. The golden orb spider also spins silk, even stronger than that of the silk worm, but so far harvesting spider silk has been too labour-intensive to exploit commercially. Meanwhile the familiar silk worm goes on spinning up to a kilometre of thread from every cocoon, thread that eventually clothes us with such comfort and beauty.

Feature image: Detail from: Natural mulberry silk