Silk Production in the Seventeenth Century

Jamestown settlers unwind silk from cocoons in a detail from NPS artist Sydney King's painting
17th-century Jamestown settlers unwind silk fiber from cocoons

detail of a painting by NPS artist Sydney King

"Silke is a marvellous hopefull commodity in this Country."

John Pory to Sir Edwin Sandys
June 1620

For thousands of years, silk has been considered a luxury trade good par excellence because it fetches a high price, is relatively easy to transport and is always in demand among the wealthy. It is only natural that James I and subsequent English sovereigns would encourage production of this textile amongst the settlers of Virginia.

Chinese legend tells how silk was discovered almost 5,000 years ago by Xiling Shi, the wife of the semi-mythical emperor Huanghi. Walking in the garden, the empress plucked a cocoon from a mulberry tree. The cocoon fell by accident into her cup of tea and she watched as a strong white thread unraveled. However it was discovered, the potential for such a thread was first realized in China, where silk fabric was being produced by 3000 B.C. A silk industry had developed there by the 14thcentury B.C.

The Silk Road, a trade route which involved many cultures and stretched from Nagasaki, Japan in the east to Genoa, Italy in the west, opened by 100 B.C. As its name implies, the major product being traded from east to west was silk, the manufacture of which the Chinese kept a closely-guarded secret. Other peoples in central and western Asia learned how to spin and weave the threads, but only the Chinese could supply the raw materials.

This situation altered in the fifth century A.D., when a Chinese princess married the king of Khotan, an oasis north of the Plain of Tibet. When the princess left her native land and traveled west to her bridegroom, she carried, smuggled in her headdress, silkworm cocoons and the seeds of the mulberry tree on which they feed.

Silk spread even further west by similar ploys. In 552 A.D., Persian Christians visiting Khotan hid silkworm cocoons in their hollow walking sticks, subsequently delivering the means of silk cultivation to Justinian I of Byzantium. Though this story is the stuff of legends the fact remains that silk production began in the Byzantine Empire at that time. From the sixth to the thirteenth century, the silk brocades of Constantinople were highly sought.

Sericulture (the craft of producing silk and its cloth), gradually spread through western Asia and Europe. By the 15th century, France and Italy were the leading manufacturers of silk in Europe. Due to religious persecution, large groups of skilled Flemish and French weavers fled to England, and an industrial complex for silk weaving developed at Spitalfields in the 1620's.

Silk has many properties which contribute to its reputation as a luxury fiber. It has a beautiful natural luster and will take dye readily. Almost as strong as cotton, it is more elastic than either cotton or linen. It will absorb up to one third of its own weight in water without feeling wet to the touch, and is a warm fabric despite its lightness. Silk has some negative attributes as well. It is easily harmed by sunlight and certain chemicals, including the salts in human perspiration. It is a poor conductor of electricity, which contributes to its reputation for "static cling" in dry atmospheric conditions.

Producing silk is a complex and skilled operation which has taken centuries to refine. The silkworm moth (Bombyx mori) has been domesticated for centuries, and the result is a creature which is bred and raised on farms, with wings too weak to fly and legs unable to crawl more than a foot or so. Silkworms are totally reliant on humans and thus a very labor-intensive prospect.

Although most silkworms raised for the industry are killed before they undergo metamorphosis and emerge as adults, the powdery white moths which do emerge from their cocoons have one primary function in the few weeks they remain alive: to produce the next generation of silkworms. In the wild, pheromones secreted by the female help guide the male to her; in captivity, the same odors exert the same fascination. After mating, the female lays 500 yellow eggs, each the size of the head of a pin, which are attached to any surface by the sticky substance accompanying them. Eggs can be stored in cool conditions by farmers until it is time to hatch them, then transferred to incubators.

The larvae which emerge from the eggs about 20 days later are an eighth of an inch long. Feeding is the primary activity of the larval stage, which lasts about 25 days. During this period, the worm molts four times, becoming much larger each time it sheds its skin. At the last instar (the period before or after molting), the larva will have grown to 10,000 times its hatching weight. The worm eats almost continuously, fed on the leaves of mulberry trees brought to them by the farmers. As the worm grows, its special silk glands grow as well, eventually comprising one quarter of the larva's mass.

At the end of the fifth instar, the worm stops eating. That is the signal for the farmers to transfer larvae to specially-constructed frames which will provide support for the worm's construction of its protective and valuable cocoon.

By this time, the worm's two silk glands are fully developed, and it begins to exude silk from both at the same time, as well as a sticky substance called sericin to bind the two threads together. The silk is liquid in the worm's body, but hardens into a thread in contact with the air as the larva moves its head in a characteristic figure eight pattern.

After constructing a support system composed of short threads, the worm begins spinning its cocoon of a single, continuous thread of silk over a mile long. Constructed from the outside in, the cocoon takes over two days to complete. The worm then enters its pupae stage, which, if allowed to continue, will result in an adult moth in about three weeks. Most of the insects, however, are killed in the pupae stage, as they damage the cocoon when they emerge as adults. Roasting the cocoons in a hot oven is a malodorous process which kills the animals without damaging the silk they have spun.

To transform cocoons into cloth, workers boil them to release the sticky sericin on the outside. Next, since an individual silk thread is too fine to handle, the threads of as many as ten cocoons are wound together onto a reel, sticking together to form one long, strong thread. From then on, the silk can be treated as any ordinary fiber, either woven or knitted with the possibility of a wide range of textures and quality.

Although Stuart monarchs encouraged the production of silk in Virginia, the specialized labor force required, limited diet of the silkworm (the larvae did not relish the native mulberry trees) and the development of tobacco as a more successful cash crop ensured sericulture's failure in the colony. Today, most silk is produced in China, Japan or Korea, with small quantities harvested in Russia and other countries.

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Davenport, Elsie G. Your Handspinning.

Diderot, Denis. A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry.

Fannin, Allen. Handspinning: Arts and Techniques.

Johnson, Sylvia A. Silkworms.

Kluger, Marilyn. Your Handspinning.

Meyer, Virginia M. and Dorman, John Frederick. Adventurers of Purse and Person.

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Lee Pelham Cotton
Spring 1996

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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