The Beauty of Silk Fabrics

Patra brings you a few fun facts that you might not have already known about silk.

 

When the word ‘silk’ is mentioned, it immediately conjures images of waves of light and luxurious fabric in bright jewel colours. But how does silk evolve from being a few strands of protein, to a beautiful dress, scarf, trousers or top?

 

Types of Silk

 

Silk is a completely natural fibre that is produced by the silk worm to make a cocoon. Made predominately of proteins, it is a delicate yet tough compound that makes up the basic component of all the silk yarns and fabric used to make clothes and accessories.

There are, quite literally, hundreds of species of silk moths spinning cocoons, only seventy of which are considered to be of economic value. The principal commercial silk is Mulberry, with other popular  types being Tussah and, predominately from India, Muga and Eri.

The majority of the world silk supply comes from China with India and Brazil also producing significant quantities. All three countries however rely heavily on a single moth type – the Bomby Mori. As a worm, this particular moth feeds solely on leaves of the Mulberry tree, which is why the resulting silk that is unwound from the cocoon is often referred to as Mulberry silk. It is Mulberry silk that is used to create a wide range of fabrics including Crepes, Chiffons,Satins, Taffetas and Twills.

 

Silk Thread Properties

 

Silk Cocoon, image by Jan Smith.Silk is a natural fibre formed from two main protein types, fibroin and sericin. These proteins combine with water and other trace elements to give an exceptional smooth glass like fibre roughly triangular in cross-section.  It is these combined properties which give satin fabrics such an ethereal shimmery quality.

The cocoon is made from single thread which typically ranges, in its raw state, from 300 to 900 meters in length. Once the cocoons have been unwound, several of the threads from the cocoons are then wound together to form a single strand of raw silk.

The silk thread, whilst delicate, is very dense; it is roughly 15 micrometres in diameter, thicker than a strand of cotton! Despite the advances in man-made materials and products, Mother Nature is still able to trump us when it comes to strength! Surprisingly, a silk rope is actually stronger than an equally thick metal wire. Even though silk has a high level of tensile strength and makes a robust fabric, its protein based structure can leave it susceptible to modern bio-detergents.  It is for this reason that silk requires special care (care instructions).

 

Silk Fabric History

 

Silk has always been a symbol of status, wealth, and power. Not only is it one of the softest, lightest and most breathable fabrics on the market, but for many years its production was a closely guarded secret in China!

Chinese legends suggest that Lady His-Ling-Shih first introduced the idea of sericulture; the rearing of silkworms, in 2640BC. Up until the sixth century, raw silk could only be purchased from China and it rapidly became the cornerstone of the Chinese economy.  During this time, the use of silk was reserved exclusively for the emperor, his family and some of the very highest dignitaries.

Inevitably silk production spread and eventually all classes of society began wearing clothes spun from silk. It also made its way into industrial settings, as the strong fibres were used to make everything from the musical instrument strings to fishing lines, bonds and even paper. It was even used as currency during the Han Dynasty; farmers paid their dues in grain and silk, and it was used to reward servants and subjects.  Even today we are using it for more than just fabric and clothing manufacture, with uses ranging from the ‘common’ such as wallpaper and cosmetics to the truly specialist such as engineer organic tissues, which fully utilises silk’s unique properties.

The secret of silk was leaked to other countries as Chinese immigrants began to leave their home country. Korea developed silk worm farming, sericulture, around 200BC and was closely followed by India in 300 AD. Other areas of Europe, such as Northern Italy, had begun silk looming by the late 13th and early 14th century.

Today, silk production has doubled despite the introduction of man-made fabrics and fibres. However, there is still a very special place in the heart of the fabric manufacturing world for silk. The complexity of its creation, its delicate nature and stunning results mean that it will always be highly revered as one of the most luxurious natural fabrics in the world.

 

Weaving Silk

Silk Looming, image by Peretz Partensky.

It takes a lot of effort to turn a single silk thread into the beautiful fabrics and garments we all know.  One of the most common ways of transforming those shimmering threads into something wearable is by weaving.  The wide-scale industrialisation of the weaving process allows for a wide range of different fabric types and helps to accentuate silk’s distinctive properties – but that’s another story.

 

 

 

Did any of our facts about silk surprise you? If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible!

 

Silk Cocoon image by Jan Smith.

Silk Looming image by Peretz Partensky.

 

 

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