The origins of silk production are somewhat hazy.  According to ancient Chinese legend, Empress Leizu accidentally discovered the practice while sitting in her garden sipping on hot tea.  A cocoon fell into her bowl and when she pulled it out, it began to unravel into a long filament. The young empress developed methods for producing thread from these filaments and the Chinese carefully guarded this process for over 3000 years.


Silk was a prestigious fabric that at first was only reserved for the Chinese imperial court. The Chinese monopoly in silk production did not mean that silk itself was restricted to Chinese borders. Quite the contrary, it was used as a diplomatic gift and became China’s major export.


In the 3rd Century B.C., silk fabrics spread throughout the whole of Asia, and were also transported to the west via the infamous silk roads. The term ‘silk’ is derived from the Greek 'Seres', the name given to the inhabitants of the East Asian countries from which silk first came to Europe.


In the mid-6th century AD, the Byzantines managed to get hold of silkworm eggs after Emperor Justinian sent two monks on a mission to Asia.  Silk continued to spread througout Europe, Japan and especially in China.


From 1872, silk imported from Japan became more competitive, due to the opening of the Suez Canal and developments in Japanese reeling techniques.  Industrialisation in European silk-producing countries such as France, meant that agricultural labour moved to the cities and towns. 


Silk supplies from Japan were cut off during the second world war, and people turned to alternatives such as synthetic fibres.  When the war was over, Japan began to restore silk production, and became the world's biggest producer of silk.   However, close on Japan's heels was China, who, after some serious reorganisation and developments in reeling, once again took prime position as the queen of silk production.  Empress Leizu would be pleased!






About the Silk Roads. Unesco

The history of Silk. The Silk Association of Great Britain

Chinese Silk: A Cultural History by Shelagh Vainker, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004, 224 pp., 137

Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Chinese Empress Discovers Silk-Making." ThoughtCo, Sep. 30, 2016,