Silk is a fabric first produced in Neolithic China from the filaments of the cocoon of the silk worm. It became a staple source of income for small farmers and, as weaving techniques improved, the reputation of Chinese silk spread so that it became highly desired across the empires of the ancient world. As China's most important export for much of its history, the material gave its name to the great trading network the Silk Road, which connected East Asia to Europe, India, and Africa. Not only used to make fine clothes, silk was used for fans, wall hangings, banners, and as a popular alternative to paper for writers and artists.
Origins & Cultivation
Silk is produced by silk worms (Bombyx mori) to form the cocoon within which the larvae develop. A single specimen is capable of producing a 0.025 mm thick thread over 900 metres (3,000 ft) long. Several such filaments are then twisted together to make a thread thick enough to be used to weave material. Fabrics were created using looms, and treadle-operated versions appear in, for example, the murals in tombs of the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). The silk could be dyed and painted using such minerals and natural materials as cinnabar, red ochre, powdered silver, powdered clam shells, and indigo and other inks extracted from vegetable matter.
Sericulture - that is the cultivation of mulberry leaves, the tending of silkworms, the gathering of threads from their cocoons and the weaving of silk - first appears in the archaeological record of ancient China c. 3600 BCE. Excavations at Hemudu in Zhejiang province have revealed Neolithic tools for weaving and silk gauze. The earliest known examples of woven silk date to c. 2700 BCE and come from the site of Qianshanyang, also in Zhejiang. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the Indus Valley civilization in the north of the Indian subcontinent was also making silk contemporary with the Neolithic Chinese. They used the Antheraea moth to produce silk threads for weaving.