B is for Bombyx Mori

12th c. image of silk production, from James Hare website.

Here we go round the Mulberry Bush, the Mulberry Bush, the Mulberry Bush
Here we go round the Mulberry Bush
All on a Frosty Morning…

Were they experimenting, those first enterprising Chinese textile workers who pulled the threads off a caterpillar’s cocoon and found them to be strong and fine? Did they know to dip them in water to separate them from the egg or was that an accident, like most inventions? There may be up to a mile in threads in a single cocoon, so say the advertisements, and placing the unopened cocoon in water frees them.

The Chinese discovered as far back as the Neolithic Age (the New Stone Age) that the wispy strings of the cocoon could be spun into a cloth delicate, shiny, and strong. They held the secret close for centuries, until someone smuggled the cocoons and the mulberry out, to try it on their own.

Not everyone succeeded. Historian/humorist Bill Bryson thinks that the mulberry bush song we may have sung as kids reflectsthe frustrations of the 18th and 19th century British, who tried to replicate the Chinese silk production but found their climate too inhospitable on those frosty mornings.

The cocoons like it warm.

Worm/caterpillar Bombyx Mori with its cocoon.

The mature insects are moths, and they started wild, like all creatures. Wild silkworms still exist and are harvested, but the domesticated ones are easier to mass produce. Besides, best to have the thread intact, and the wild silk found is usually cocoons that have already ruptured. Best to treat like a crop like chickens and eggs, taking the outside of the eggs to the spinners and the dyers–in this case, the commodity is the shell rather than what’s inside. Of course, a few other creatures spin silk, too, notably spiders. But trying to get them to spin on cue is a bit difficult.

Weighing the cocoons to make sure they’re ready. From Wikimedia.

Sericulture Production

From Wikimedia, shroud from 200 CE.

Genetics of the silk protein have been dated back 8500 years, while a tomb included wrappings that are from 3600 BCE. They were so strong that fibers can last for centuries. They hold dye well and were even used at times for writing. No wonder everybody wanted them. Supposedly the earliest owners were imperial and legend has it that the discovery or “invention” silk textiles was from empress Lei-Tzu.

The Han dynasty, the empire that rose to prominence shortly after Alexander the Great and lasted until Roman Emperor Augustus, brought silk production to an industry and an art. It was one of their great claims to fame, and as their armies cleared out some of the surrounding nomads which had kept them bottled up within the mountainous passes, the traders got out. Goods began moving from China to the west. Eventually, the other great empires got a hold of it and wanted their own.

The Yangtze delta, south, warm, and full of mulberry. From wikipedia.

From the Yangtze to the Tiber

The Yangtze River delta, where the mulberry bushes grew and the worms were discovered basking and feeding on them, is roughly the same latitude as Portugal. Much further south than the chilly British isles, but certainly near in climate to Rome. When the textiles went west, the Romans couldn’t get enough of them. Every fashionable Roman lady (and gentleman, too) wanted clothes made of silk.

But not all the Romans were happy. Several of the orators were annoyed that the hunger for fashion trumped good taste or decorum. Seneca the Younger was particularly incensed at the clinginess of the fabric:

I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one’s decency, can be called clothes. … Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.

Dancing Maenad wearing a silk shift, painting from Pompeii (wikimedia).

There are several stories of Romans trying to produce the goods after Arab merchants smuggled the cocoons the 4000 miles from China. Mostly, it didn’t work. But then another two millennia passed and the Romans, Persians, and Indians got into the act.

Today, a great deal of the world’s silk production also occurs in India, although China is still the number one producer, and Chinese silk is still in high demand. Some of those fancy gowns worn by Roman women might still be intact, too.

5 Replies to “B is for Bombyx Mori”

  1. I have a friend who researches Chinese items found in Roman contexts and vice versa. It is fascinating, how far things traveled even back then. People don’t usually think of those empires as connected…
    Fun theme! 🙂

    The Multicolored Diary

    1. It would be interesting to know what your friend found out about those items going back and forth. I finally “connected the dots” when I read about Iranian museums showing porcelains… duh! Of course, those came across the silk road in the 14th century. Thanks for your comment and I will check out your theme, too.

  2. It’s fascinating the things you unearth when you write these. Using the cocoons to spin silk? Wow! And, I sang that mulberry bush song as a child and never had any idea at its possible meaning.

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