Silk is perhaps the most attractive textile man has ever created. The aura of luxury it gives off has legendary origins: around 3000 BC, a Chinese empress taught her people how to raise silkworms and how to get silk from them. Although the silk production process was China’s best-kept secret, it spread to Japan, Korea and India, where the fate of silk continued to be intertwined with royal families and temples, but also to rich merchants who travelled the Silk Road bringing silk from China, known in ancient times as the ‘land of silk’, to Byzantium. To this day, China and India continue to export silk all over the world, and are the major silk producing countries in the world.
We now know that what was once a secret production is an elaborate process: everything begins with the cocoons produced by silkworms, which are the larvas of some species of moths. Once the silkworm has been raised and fed mostly with mulberry leaves, it is removed from the cocoon. The cocoon is then plunged into hot water: this operation, called degumming, separates the fiber from its glue, thus improving the handle, the shimmering and the flexibility of the silk. Finally, the silk can be spun and woven.
Clothes, lingerie, scarves, ties, tapestry and linen: silk can be transformed in many different ways. There are indeed different types of silk depending on the spinning and weaving techniques, on the decorations, on the countries and regions of productions, and on the materials it can be blended with, like wool, cotton or synthetic fibers. An important distinguishing criterion is also the type of cocoon, which can be created by hundreds of different silk moths. For instance, mulberry silk is produced by domestic silkworms and is the finest silk in the world, for it is extremely smooth and strong, with pearlescent shimmering luster. Once woven, it is known by different textile names depending on the weave, like for example satin silk, chiffon silk, crepe silk, or tabby silk. Tussar silk (also spelled tussah o tasar) is instead produced by wild silk moths living in rain forests. It is a light-weighted and airy silk with a stiff and textured feel and with a dull gold sheen. Shantung silk is a particular type of tussar silk and is native to China. Since the yarns are obtained from a cocoon built together by two silk moths, it is a very rare and precious silk fabric with a coarse, irregular texture.
The wide range of silk varieties is treasured by India in the form of its traditional female garments, the sarees. Sarees can be either pure silk fabrics or silk blend fabrics, like the chanderi sarees. ‘Chanderi’ may actually refer to a pure silk fabric, to a cotton silk blend fabric or to a pure cotton fabric. In ancient times, chanderi sarees were indeed simple cotton clothes. At the beginning of the 20th century, chanderi sarees became even more fabulous when the ancient zari decorations – gold, silver or copper brocade yarn woven into the fabric – were introduced and when they started being woven with silk. As chanderi sarees became covered with precious handwoven motifs inspired to nature or to geometric patterns, they gained a transparent, sheer and precious texture: that’s the unicity of the silk.