Silk fibers are water-insoluble filaments that animals (chiefly the larval version of moths and butterflies, but also spiders) secrete from specialized glands. Animals store the chemicals fibroin and sericin—silkworm cultivation is often called sericulture. As the gels in the glands of insects are excreted, they are converted into fibers. Spiders and at least 18 different orders of insects make silk. Some use them to construct nests and burrows, but butterflies and moths use the excretions to spin cocoons for its transformation into the moth form. The fabric we call silk is made from the long thin fibers produced by the silkworm during its larval stage (Bombyx mori). The insect's intent is to create a cocoon. Silkworm workers simply unravel the cocoons, each cocoon producing between 325–1,000 feet (100–300 meters) of fine, very strong thread. The Chinese learned to raise the silkworms on a fattening diet of the leaves of carefully cultivated mulberry trees. They also learned to watch the development of the cocoons so they could kill the chrysalis by plunging it in boiling water just before its time. This method ensures the full length of silk strands. The boiling water also softens the sticky protein holding together the silk. The process of pulling out the strand of silk from the water and cocoon in known as reeling. The thread is then woven into beautiful clothing. Domesticated silkworms tolerate human handling and massive crowding and are totally dependent on humans for survival.
Do you know the ‘First Sericulturalist’?
Lady Hsi-ling, the principal wife of Huangdi, who is better known as the Yellow Emperor is believed to be the first sericulturalist. The Yellow Emperor is a legendary Neolithic era ruler and ancestor of the Chinese people, with almost godlike proportions. Huangdi is said to have lived in the third millennium B.C. for 100-118 years, during which he is credited with giving numerous gifts like magnetic compass to the Chinese people. The principal wife of the Yellow Emperor, the lady of Hsi-ling, is also credited with figuring out how to reel silk and inventing what people needed to make clothing from the silk.
Lady Hsi-ling is said to have:
- Cultivated the silk-producing caterpillar (Bombyx mori)
- Fed the silkworm the mulberry leaf that was discovered to be the best food -- at least for those interested in producing the best silk
- Invented the loom to weave the fiber