Interesting facts about silk and silkworms

September 11, 2010 | In: Random interesting fact

It’s worth its weight in gold.

When one Asian silkworm egg, weighing only 1/30,000th of an ounce, hatches, the emerging caterpillar will produce a beautiful silk thread. In demand for thousands of years, silk has been one of the world’s most valuable fibers.

Many caterpillars produce silk, but nothing like the caterpillar of the Asian silkworm moth known as “Bombyx Mori.” This caterpillar’s silk-producing gland, which opens into a spinneret on its mouth, weighs about a quarter of its weight. Generally, it can spin a single strand of silk fiber into a cocoon that is a thousand to several thousand feet (300 meters to 1 kilometer or more) in length. It has been reported that “Bombyx Mori,” also known as the Chinese or Mulberry silkworm, has spun cocoons that contained more than two miles (3 kilometers) of silk. Tapping this supply of silk involves finding a loose end and a lot of unwinding.

According to Chinese historians, the first loose end of a silk fiber from a silkworm cocoon was discovered accidentally by the Chinese Empress Si Ling-chi in 2698 B.C. Soon after, she began to breed the silkworms. The term silk is actually derived from her name. Only the Empress and her ladies knew how silk was produced and divulging the secret meant torture and death.

For thousands of years, the secret of producing silk remained hidden. However, the process eventually became known to others outside of China.

During the Christian era, silk was one of the most costly items in trade between the Roman Empire and the Orient. It was truly a mark of the wealthy. The Emperor Justinian (A.D. 483-565) eventually built a monopoly in the silk trade. He sent two Persian monks to China to bring back the means for producing silk to Constantinople. The monks had learned the secret of silk-making while residing in China. In 550 A.D., using hollow bamboo canes or staffs, they successfully smuggled silkworm eggs into Greece. This was a very dangerous assignment. If the eggs had been discovered in the staffs, the monks would surely have been put to death by the Chinese.

Eventually, other nations, such as Korea and Japan, acquired the know-how for making silk. Later, China shared its knowledge with India and in time, the silk industry was established in Europe and later in America.

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