So far on Fabric Fix, we have covered fabrics that are both cheap (relatively) and suitable for everyday wear and care. This month, we are getting a little more luxurious…let’s talk about silk.
A Short History of Silk
The history of silk production in China is a long one. The oldest silk found in China has been dated to around 3630 BC, meaning it is from the Chinese Neolithic period.
It is believed that the wife of the Yellow Emperor (who ruled China in about 3000BC), Lady Leizu, was the first to discover silk hence her title according to Chinese legend, the Goddess of Silk. She is credited with the introduction of silkworm rearing and the invention of the silk loom. It is believed the idea for silk first came to Leizu while she was having tea in the gardens when a cocoon fell into her tea and unravelled. She noticed the cocoon was made from a long thread that was both strong and soft.
How it’s made
There are many species of silk moths however the key to understanding the great mystery and magic of silk and China’s domination of its production lies with one species: the blind, flightless moth, Bombyx mori (Domestic Silk Moth). It lays 500 or more eggs in 4-6 days and dies soon after. From one ounce of eggs emerges 30 000 worms which eat a tonne of mulberry leaves to produce 12 pounds of raw silk. Over the thousands of years of silk production, the Bombyx mori silkworm species has evolved into the specialised silk producer it is today- a moth that has lost its power to fly, only capable of mating and producing eggs for the next generation of silk producers.
Once baby worms have finished feeding and growing on Mulberry leaves, they spin themselves cocoons. Traditionally, silk is produced by steaming the cocoons to kill the moth inside then rinsing in hot water to loosen and unwind the threads. Silk fibres are created by combining the threads which can then be woven into cloth.
Sustainbility and Ethics
The production of silk (sericulture) has been heavily criticised over the years by animal welfare activists due to the way larvae within the cocoons are killed. Furthermore, because of the long history of being bred in captivity, the Bombyx mori evolved into a blind moth that only lives for a few days in which it lays it eggs then dies. It has even lost its ability to eat because its mouth structures are underdeveloped.
Mahatma Ghandi was concerned about the ethics of traditional sericulture and promoted a more humane form of production by using the cocoons of wild moths once they had naturally left the cocoons. This is known as ‘wild silk’ or ‘peace silk’.
Much of the world’s silk is made in China and India which leads to pollution via processing and transportation. Furthermore, many harsh and intensive chemicals are used in the production of silk which can lead to contamination of ground water. Producing silk requires a very large amount of resources including the need for acres and acres of mulberry trees. In an attempt to create a local silk industry in other countries like the US, Latin America and South Asia, the fast-growing Paper Mulberry was introduced into many non-native areas. This has led to a quick disruption of the native habitat becoming a highly invasive species and upsetting the natural ecosystem.
Why we love it
Lightweight perfect for light and comfortable clothing
Good insulation properties; warm in winter, cool in summer
Strongest natural fibre available
Shimmers and shines for that luxe feel
Easy to dye
Leaving aside the rather demanding care, silk is one of the most comfortable fabrics to wear
Silk can be one of the trickier fabrics to care for and careful considerations need to be made.
What not to do
Never spray silk with perfume or deodorant
Never bleach silk
Never expose silk to direct sunlight for longer periods of time
Don't spray silk with water while ironing
Don't treat individual stains with water
Don’t iron the right side, always iron the backside only
Never wring dry
What you can do
In contrast to the widespread opinion that silk can only be dry cleaned, silk products can be washed by hand without being damaged.
1. Use a mild soap or specially formulated silk shampoos
Soak silk in luke warm water for 3-5 minutes.
(If silk is dark or printed, do not let it soak. Just quickly wash it in cold water.)
Gently move the fabric during soaking from side to side. (Do not wring dry!) Handle wet silk with even greater care as it is very delicate.
After a maximum of 5 minutes remove silk from water and rinse the fabric with cold water adding a tea spoon of vinegar to completely rid it of the soap.
Wrap silk in a dry towel to remove the remaining liquid. Use several layers when using dark or printed silk.
Roll out the silk and straighten it gently at the corners
Iron it on a cool setting.
Silk should always be ironed from the backside.
It should always still be slightly moist. Check your iron's setting!
Don't iron silk too hot!
Always remember that silk is a protein structure much like human hair. Heat will damage it.
Local fabric shop supply
In Melbourne, you can find some good silk prices at Darn Cheap Fabrics.
If you liked this post, you can read the rest of our Fabric Fix series to learn about other types of natural fabrics.