the West Kingdom Needlework Guild

Silk: An Endless Thread
(Part 1 Of 2)

- by Sabrina de la Bere, Guild Minister

Opus Anglicanum -- ApostlesThe more I play with silk thread for historical embroidery, the more I get curious about the history of silk, what was used for the historic embroideries, and the modern equivalents. And of course, part of playing with different silk threads is only an excuse to add to my "stash".

Silk Basics

While there are a number of different types of silk moths, two are primarily used for the production of quality silk thread - the Bombyx Mori and the Tussah moth. The Bombyx has been successfully domesticated for about 5000 years in China and has lost its ability to fly. The caterpillars' natural diet is mulberry leaves. The silk they produce is the finest white silk. A number of other types of moths have also been adapted to domestication and are now farmed ("sericulture").

The Tussah moth comes from India and has not been domesticated. Its cocoons are collected from its natural environs of oaks, where its primary diet is oak leaves. The tannin from its diet causes the silk to have a natural color cast that ranges from light gold to dark brown; it is also slightly less flexible than cultivated silk. Silk produced from the Tussah and other wild species is called "raw silk".

The silk moth spins a cocoon in its caterpillar state. It is the fiber that the caterpillar creates and forms into its cocoon that is the basis for the silk thread. The threads it exudes are bound together with a glue called sericin. Each cocoon contains between 2000 and 3000 feet of silk thread. If allowed to mature, a caterpillar remains in the cocoon for 22-32 days and then emerges as a moth.

If the cocoon is allowed to mature and the moth emerges, it "chews" through the cocoon and leaves behind the broken fibers. These are then placed in warm water to re- lease the sericin. The broken fibers are then spun into thread.

When farmed, the caterpillar is not al-lowed to mature and is killed inside the cocoon. The cocoons are placed in warm water to release the sericin from the fibers. The fiber is then reeled off in a single filament. The sugas or filaments are then combined and resulting fiber may be twisted or folded to form thread. Fine untwisted silk thread is made from 4-6 sugas.

With early silk, the skeins were dyed. This process included the boiling off of the gum, the weighting of silk and the coloring. The weighting of the silk to add bulk to the thread was done with mineral salts. Raw cocoons were also packed with salt for transport from China. There are warn-ings to western merchants about checking the salt content of early trade goods.

Silk Terminology

Boiling - degumming silk threads or goods by boiling in soap and water.

Bourette - a yarn; usually heavier weight with bits of extraneous materials occurring in it.

Cordonnet - a "cord" made by taking several raw silk threads, doubling and loosely twisting them in one direction. Then 3 of these are joined and tightly twisted in the reverse direction.

Denier - a French coin of about 1 /2 gram weight, used for determining the size of raw silk. The number of coins used to balance 450 meters is the "denierage" or size of the silk.

Filament Silk - silk that unwinds from the cocoon in an unbroken thread.

Floss - a soft silk thread that is practically without twist. Also refers to the loose waste silk emitted by the worm when it first begins to spin its cocoon.

Noil - short, lumpy fibers that are left after the combing process in making spun silk.

Ply - individual threads combined to form a thicker thread.

Raw silk - the silk produced from wiled cocoons that are gathered versus cultivated. Silk that is unprocessed is (confusingly) also called raw.

Reeling - the process of unwinding the silk from the cocoon, using a frame or reel. Reeled silk is in skeins.

Sericulture - the farming of silk caterpillars to produce silk thread.

Staple - broken fibers, waste fibers, and the silk thread spun from them.

Spun Silk - the lesser quality silk spun from staple. May contain broken filaments from cocoons where the moth has emerged, remainders of the outside layers of reeled cocoons, or leavings from the floor of the silk workshops.

Throwing - the process of taking silk fiber and processing it into usable thread. Includes twisting and doubling until the desired thickness is reached.

Tinsel - thread made by flattening wire which is then twisted around a core, frequently silk. Modernly we refer to this as "Jap" or "Japan" gold.

Twist - a heavier thread made by taking multiple thread plys and twisting them, usually under tension.

Winding - transferring the silk from reeled skeins to bobbins.

Why Silk?

16th Century engraving -- silk caterpillarWhen you look at a piece of embroidery with silk you see a wonderful luster and sheen. The colors appear to be deeper and more vital when compared to other fibers including "synthetic silk". This is what drew me to using silk - and then I fell in love with the feel.

How the luster and sheen happens has to do with the natural properties of silk. When it is high-quality reeled silk it reflects light so well that it almost looks like it is the source of the light. This is due to the almost translucent outer cellular layer. It also has a special cellular construction that allows it to receive and hold dyes well. This gives it the deeper saturated color with the strong reflective quality.

Silk also has very high tensile strength. It is said that a single silk filament is stronger than an equivalent steel filament. This strength along with its imperviousness to mildew and bugs has resulted in some wonderfully preserved pieces of fabric and embroidery.

Depending on how the silk is processed, it can have a very smooth surface and is extremely flexible. When processed to maintain the native luster, it maintains a smooth and reflective surface. Hence the wonderful feel of silk threads. Even when the lowest quality of silk is spun and worked, it still has the suppleness and "silky" touch we associate only with silk.

Quick History of Silk

3000 BC - Chinese discover silk thread.

2200 BC - Chinese trade silk with India.

400 BC - China trades silk with India who in turn trade with the Persians who in turn trade with Rome and Greece - in Greece imported goods are unraveled and the silk threads rewoven.

140 BC -silk worms smuggled to Khotan

27 BC -silk becomes common place in Rome for the elite and is used in trim bands on garments

1st C. - China develops silk velvet

16th Century engraving -- silk cocoon200 - sericulture in Japan and Korea and shortly there after India

3rd C - limits on silk wear and purchase in the Roman Empire as the cost was prohibitive being more than gold, pound for pound

300-700 - Persia (Sassinid) and Byzantium dominate the silk trade and silk weaving

400-600 - silk reeling, Chinese silk techniques and the Bombyx Mori brought to India

5th C - Sassinads develop compound weft twill silks

550 AD - sericulture in Byzantium spreads to N. Africa and Spain, and from Greece to Sicily and Italy. The spread and development continues with the Crusades and unsettled times on the Italian peninsula and Sicily

8th C - Chinese develop silk satin, but it does not come into heavy use in Europe until the 13th C.

800 - Central Asian silks (Byzantine) used as dalmatic fragments in England

8-9th C - silk woven in England, on drawlooms, with a weft faced com-pound twill known as "samite" that shows off long weft floats of the silk. There are also weft faced patterned tabby weave silks with geometric pat-terns. The drawloom may have been brought back by the Crusaders from Damascas.

12th & 13th C. - increased usage of met-al thread in woven silk cloths.

1251 - silk manufactured (from imported cocoons) in England - noted in accounts of the wedding of Henry III's daughter where a thousand knights wear silk garments

13th C. - Lucca becomes the major silk weaving export center in Europe for luxury cloth. 1349 silk weavers form their own Guild in Lucca. Silk production centers in Genoa, Venice, Bologna, and Lucca.

1400's - silk velvet woven in Venice; including the development of the gold pique velvet - cross influences between painters, embroiderers and weavers in designs

16th Century engraving -- silk moth hatching15th C - shot taffeta and sarsinet developed using reeled silk with little or no twist

15th C - cotton velvets of Bursa (Otto-man) - usually cotton foundation with silk pile

1500's - sea routes between Italy and India & China open - "silk road" begins its decline

1546 - House of Tussah (weavers versus traders) opens in Lyon France

1562 - Guild of silk throwers formed in Spitalfield, England

1598 - Elizabeth I presented with ma-chine knitted silk stockings


A Stitcher's Guild to Silk Thread. Published by Kreinik Manufacturing Co. Inc. 2001.

"A Fine Quality Embroidery from Llangors Crannog, near Brecon", by Hero Granger and Frances Pritchard. Published in Pattern and Purpose in Insular Art, edited by M. Redknapp, N. Edwards, S. Youngs, A. Lane, and J. Knight. Oxbow Books. 2001, ISBN 1 84217 058 9.

"Textile Finds in the People's Republic of China" by Hsio-Yen Shih. In Studies in Textile History, edited by Veronika Gervers. Published by Royal Ontario Museum. 1977. ISBN 0-88854-192-9.

"The Development of the Textile Crafts in Spain." Articles by A. Wittlin. Ciba Review 20. April 1939.

A Pictorial History of Embroidery, by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Muller-Christensen. Published by Praeger. 1964.

Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600, by Rosamond E. Mack. Published by University of California Press. 2002 ISBN 0-520-22131-1.

Flowers of Silk & Gold: Four Centuries of Ottoman Embroidery, by Sumru Belger Krody. Merrell, in association with The Textile Museum, Washington DC. 2000. ISBN 1 85894 1059.

Silk, by Jacques Anquetil. Published by Flammarion, 1995. ISBN 2-08015-616-X

Textile Conservation and Research, by Mechthild Flury-Lemberg. Published by Schriften Der Abegg-Stiftung. 1988 ISBN 3-905014-02-5.

Textiles and Clothing: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London 4 c. 1150-c. 1450, by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland. HMSO. 1992 ISBN 0 11 290445 9.

The Book of Silk, by Philippa Scott. Published by Thames & Hudson. 1993. ISBN 0-500-28308-7.

The Conservation of Tapestries and Embroideries: Proceedings of the Meetings at the Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique Brussels, Belguim September 21-24, 1987. Published by The Getty Conservation Institute. 1989 ISBN 0-89236-154-9.

"The Conservation of Embroideries at the Intitute Royal du Patrimoine Artistique" by Juliete De boeck, Vera Vereecken, and Tatiana Reicher.

"The Restoration of a Twelfth Century Liturgical Sandal at the Musee Historique des Tissus in Lyons" by Marie Schoefer and Denise Lestoquoit.

The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice, by Luca Mola. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press. 2000. ISBN 0- 8018-6189-6.

The Story of Silk and Cheney Silks, by H.H. Manchester, A.B. Published by Cheney Brothers. 1924.

- PART 2 IN THE NEXT ISSUE - (Featuring a timeline of silk embroidery and reviews of modern threads.)

Engravings illustrating this article are from "Strandanous Vermis Sericus" - engravings depicting the stages in the manufacture of silk. in 16th c. Italy, found at: silk.html


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