How tea helped discover silk

How tea helped discover silk
There is a little neighbourhood in Singapore called Arab street, an area of indie boutiques, shop-houses and street arts. Every now and then, I go there to explore the brightly coloured fabrics and textiles that come from all over the world. My favourite are the silks that make their way from India & China to this little corner here. Then one day, as I was going gaga over a beautiful Chinese brocade, a chatty local shopkeeper shared this little story with me. 
dragon robe

Once Upon a Time

One breezy afternoon around 3000 B.C.E., Empress Leizu, consort to the great Yellow Emperor, sat down for a cup of tea in her garden. Under the shade of a mulberry tree, she lifted the cup to her lips when—plink—a small object dropped (narrowly missing her royal nose) into her drink. The empress lowered her cup in surprise. A moth’s cocoon, hard, oblong, and pasty white in colour, had fallen from the swaying mulberry branches overhead. With royal composure, she plucked the blob from her tea and was about to cast it aside when she noticed it was curiously soft. The cocoon was not encased in a hard shell but in a sort of fiber, which a quick soak in her hot tea had further softened. Pulling on a loose strand, Leizu unraveled it until it stretched the length of her garden, over 600 meters. Intrigued, she gathered more cocoons from the tree to unravel, and worked the strands into cloth. When she finished, she had woven a soft and shimmery fabric that was cool to the touch.
empress leizu
Excited by her discovery, the empress didn’t stop there. She studied the worms that produced the cocoons and noticed that they ate nothing but mulberry leaves. Leizu persuaded the Yellow Emperor to procure a grove of mulberry trees so she could domesticate these silkworms. She invented a reel to spin their cocoon fibres into thread, and a loom to weave into cloth. Then she passed on what she learned to her entourage, and the sericulture tradition was born.
From a disrupted afternoon tea, the empress’ new discovery became intertwined with China’s next five thousand years of history. From then on, Leizu also became known as the goddess of silk.

A Tradition Begins

Silk was an instant hit. Soft but strong, light and elegant, silk is very adaptable and possesses many virtues that make it extremely valuable. It keeps you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It wicks moisture. And dyed silk-woven items hold their colour for centuries.

In the first thousand years of its discovery, silk was produced exclusively for the emperor and his close relations or as gifts to dignitaries. In time, as silk production increased, other classes of society were allowed to own silk as well. However, specific colours, accessories, and motifs were exclusive to each social stratum and position. Yellow, for example, was reserved for the emperor. Men from different military ranks also sported different silk headpieces to distinguish themselves.

guo pei dragon robe

Other than clothing and decoration, silk was used to make musical instruments, archery bowstrings, fishing lines, and the world’s first (luxury) paper. In fact, much ancient knowledge has been preserved and passed down through silk scrolls. During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), silk could even be used as a type of currency in trade.

Throughout the centuries in China’s silk-producing provinces, families of daughters, mothers, and grandmothers would tend to their silkworms for half the year, then harvest, unravel, spin, weave, dye, and embroider during the remaining months.

Spread to the West

Since silkworms were endemic to China and kept a secret from outsiders, foreigners were clueless about how silk was made. But silk quickly became one of the most sought-after fabrics in the world, and many countries were extremely eager to trade for it. This rapid growth in popularity led to the rise of the Silk Road. Although silk products could pass beyond China’s borders, Chinese authorities forbade the secrets of sericulture from leaving the empire. Anyone caught smuggling silk moths or eggs was executed.

eri silkworms

After two thousand years of successful border security, however, sericultural knowledge began to trickle into India with immigrants. In 440 C.E., it reached beyond China's western border when a Chinese princess—dispatched to marry a tribal prince as part of diplomatic matrimony—stowed silkworms eggs inside her elaborate up-do. Unfortunately for silk lovers in Europe, the tribal peoples also kept the secret among themselves. The West still had to wait.

At last, in 550 C.E., two monks working for Justinian the Great made it home with the precious eggs hidden in their staffs, and the long-sought knowledge finally arrived in Byzantium. Before then, Romans used to believe that silk was harvested by “removing the down from leaves with the help of water” (Pliny’s Natural History). From there, sericulture gradually spread throughout Europe.

Today, silk is an international commodity, yet the ideals of the orient that lie within silk have never faded. Silk is timeless. And thousands of years ago, it all began with a cup of afternoon tea.