Silk An Introduction

The name silk brings the feeling of softest fabrics , shiny, breathable and comfort. I¬¬t has been of great value since it was first harvested thousands of years ago. And despite advances in production methods and new possibilities for cultivation, still today the only reasonable way to glean the thread in mass quantities is by silkworms. When silk was first discovered, it was reserved exclusively for the use of the ruler. It was permitted only to the emperor, his close relations and the highest dignitaries. Within the palace, the emperor is believed to have worn a robe of white silk; outside, he, his principal wife and the heir to the throne wore yellow, the colour of the earth.

Silkworms are caterpillars . During its 3 to 8 day pupating period, the silkworm secretes fibroin, a sticky liquid protein, from its two sericteries (special salivary glands). Pushed through a spinneret (opening on the mouth), the twin pair of continuous threads harden when they come into contact with the air. Next, the silkworm secretes sericin, a bonding agent, from two other glands to hold the two filaments together. While constructing its cocoon, the silkworm will twist in a figure-8 motion about 300,000 times and produce around 1 kilometer of filament.

Since hatching from the cocoon destroys the thread, to harvest the silk, the cocoon is placed in either boiling water, or blasted with steam or hot air, all processes that kill the pupae. Less lethal methods were tried in the past, such as pulling the silk as the worms spun it, but the worms resisted and bit off the filaments (the longest thread harvested in this way was just 6 meters).

Besides killing the pupae, the heat softens the binding agent (sericin), so that the filaments may be unwound. Sometimes, the softened sericin is left on the fibers, and this product is called raw silk. In the end, it takes the deaths of about 2500 caterpillars to make a single pound of raw silk.

From there, raw silk strands are twisted together until a fiber of sufficient strength for knitting or weaving is produced, and different twisting methods produce a different type of thread: crepe, thrown, tram, organzine or singles. Crinkly fabrics are made with crepe, while sheer cloth is made with single thread. Spun silk is comprised of broken filaments that have been processed into a yarn.

To get the billions of cocoons necessary to have a viable silk industry (by some estimates, about 10 billion each year), the worms are cultivated. Called sericulture, it begins with female moths, each laying about 300-400 pin-sized eggs, shortly after which they (the moths) die. The eggs are incubated for 10 days. When they hatch, they are still tiny (about ¼ inch). Gluttons, they feast on mulberry leaves (although lesser-quality silks are made from silkworms that eat Osage orange and lettuce). After about 6 weeks of constant eating, the silkworm has grown to about 3 inches in length, weighs nearly 10,000 times what it did when it hatched and begins to work on spinning its own grave.

Although a few other plants are fed to silkworms, the mulberry has always been associated with its production. In fact, when the Emperor Justinian first stole the means of silk production in the 6th century AD (according to legend, he had two monks smuggle some eggs out of China), he also pinched a few seeds of the mulberry tree.

Bhagalpur is widely known as silk city as it is famous worldwide for its silk production. The silk industry in this city is hundreds of years old and a whole clan exists that has been producing silk for generations.

Bhagalpur Silk which was China’s best-guarded secret for centuries, has now become synonymous with Bhagalpur. Both Hindu and Buddhist texts have showered praise on the silk fabrics woven in ancient Champapuri, modern Bhagalpur where silk has been the mainstay of economy with hundreds of families associated with it for generation.

Bhagalpur silk weavers, whose products are in demand in international markets as well, also use Chinese and Korean threads.
European traders in India often turned to Bhagalpur which was famous for trade on cloth that fetched high value in Europe. In the last quarter of the 18th century CE, Bhagalpur was popular with the European indigo planters who acquired extensive landed properties. To Bishop Herber, who visited Bhagalpur in 1829, the city was one of the healthiest places in India.

Gradually, however various classes of society began wearing tunics of silk, and the fabric of the classes became that of the masses.
Apart from being used for clothing and decoration, silk was quite quickly put to industrial use by the Chinese and it became one of the principal elements of the Chinese economy. Silk was used on musical instruments, fishing-line, bowstrings, bonds of all kinds and even rag paper the world’s first luxury paper.

Silk became a precious commodity, and it is believed that the silk trade actually started even before the Silk Road, the trade route of ancient Chinese civilisation, was officially opened in the second century BCE.
Mulberry, the cultivated silkworm, feeds on the leaves of the mulberry tree, mostly cultivated is also available with the weavers of Bhagalpur.

The famous Matka silk is obtained from waste Mulberry silk by way of hand spinning and without removing the gum. The cocoons required to produce Matka are found in districts of West Bengal and Bihar.
The famous Matka silk is obtained from waste Mulberry silk by way of hand spinning and without removing the gum. The cocoons required to produce Matka are found in districts of West Bengal and Bihar.