China Silk

Empress Leizu, the inventor of sericulture
Empress Leizu,
the inventor of sericulture
"A silkworm spins all its silk till its death and a candle won't stop its tears until it is fully burnt." This Tang poem accurately describes the property of the silkworm. Despite technological development, a silkworm can only produce a certain amount of silk - 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in its lifespan of 28 days. The rarity of the raw material is the deciding factor of both the value and the mystery of China silk.


Legend has it that in ancient times, Lei Zu, the wife of Huang Di , taught people how to raise silkworms and how to extract the silk.

The Warring States Period, the beginning of feudalist society in Chinese history,  witnessed a prosperous time. The development of productivity popularized silk and it was no longer a luxury just for aristocrats.  The pattern, weaving, embroidery and dyeing skills were all improved as they were influenced by the free ideology of the time, while the silk designs had sense of a free and bold air about them.

The silk products excavated from Mawangdui Han Tomb are proof of the advanced skill and artistry of silk at this time.

Silk production peaked during the Han Dynasty when the manufactured goods were transported as far away as Rome from Chang'an (today's Xi'an). The overland trade route was to become famously known as the Silk Road. However, there was also a Marine Silk Road extending from Xuwen, Guangdong or Hepu, Guangxi to Vietnam. An outward bound voyage lasting five months would arrive in Vietnam; it would take another four months to reach Thailand; while a further twenty days would carry the merchants on to Burma. Two months later they would arrive in India and Sri Lanka, from where the silk would be eventually transported to Rome via the Mediterranean. After such a long journey, the price of silk was equivalent to that of gold. Legendary as it seems, tender silk connected China to the rest of the world.
Colorful silk world
Colorful silk world
Pink silk clothes
Pink silk clothes
During subsequent dynasties, professional designers created novel patterns and improved the machines.

The Marine Silk Road took supremacy over the land Silk Road following the Song Dynasty extending the trade to Southeast Asia which became fully developed in the Yuan Dynasty. Besides Chinese exports, foreign businessmen also came to China to buy silk and china wares.

During the Ming and Qing Dynasties silk was transported to Europe and America from Manila and this meant that China dominated the world's silk market until 1908.

Chinese characters including the component "silk" have the intonation of silk or its implication of fine and deep. The richness of color, texture, strength and beauty of silk make it the means to imply something is fine and impeccable. A woman's raven hair is referred to as 'black silk' ; tender feelings are 'feelings of silk' and the Chinese word for a lingering and emotive feeling contains the component of "silk", and even a flavor can be silky and smooth.
Statues of travelers on ancient silk road
Statues of travelers on ancient silk road
Oceangoing Ship, Southern Song Dynasty
A sailboat model

Tips on Buying Silk

When coming to China, many visitors would like to buy some souvenirs. The smooth silk product is certainly the best choice. Before buying them, it is always wise to learn the common sense of the silk product including the function, identification and maintenance.

Function of Silk

Being a natural fiber, the silk has irreplaceable uniqueness and great vitality. The silk garment has certain health care function to human body:

First, it brings the pleasant sensation. Composed of azelon, the real silk has a good biocompatibility. The smooth surface makes the smallest friction coefficient of all types of ribers.

Second, it has a good permeability and hygroscopicity. It contains 18 sorts of amino acid. It is regarded as the "Queen of Fiber" due to its good permeability and light absorbing ability.

Third, it has excellent qualities of acoustic absorption, dust absorption and strongly heat-resistant.Fourth, it has the function of anti-ultraviolet radiation. The fibroin in it can well absorb the ultraviolet radiation. But after absorbing the ultraviolet radiation, the chemical changes will make it yellowing from day lighting.
weaving silk
Weaving silk
silk embroidery
Silk embroidery

Identification of Real Silk

The most common methods to identify real silk are handling, eye observation, inflammation and chemical coloring.

The methods of Handling and Eye Observation: 

Observe the length and uniformity of fiber: silk is slim and long; cotton fiber is short; fleece is longer and more curled than cotton fiber; the long chemical fiver is long, and the short chemical fiber is short and trim.

Observe the handling and strength of fiver: the handling of silk is moderate; terylene, nylon yarn and viscose feel very similar to silk; The flax and cotton are hard and the fleece is soft.

Observe from the appearance: silk fiber has special sheen, bright but not harsh glare; chemical fiber does not have this property.

By Inflammation, burn the fiber and observe the changes to determine its kind.

Touch the Flame
Away from the Flame
Smell When Burns
Feature of the Leftovers
Curl, melt, flame up
Burn slowly, extinguish sometimes
Hair burning
Crisp, loose and black granule
Flame up instantly
Inflame instantly
Paper burning
Soft, fine, grayish black downy leftovers
Flame up instantly
Inflame instantly
Paper burning
Soft, fine, hoar downy leftovers
Curl, melt, flame up
Burn slowly, extinguish sometimes
Hair burning
Crisp, loose and black hard coke
Burn slowly with noise
Hair burning
Crisp, loose and black beadlike

Washing and Maintenance of Real Silk

1. Hand washing is recommended with the silk clothes inside out. The water temperature should be under 86F (30C). The silk would be softer and smoother if soaked in the water with several drops of vinegar before washing.
2. Neither alkaline detergents nor soap should be used to wash your silk clothes. Neutral detergents would be the best.
3. It should be dried in a well-ventilated place and should avoid the direct sunlight.
4. Don’t hang the silk products onto sharp or metal hook to avoid unintentional damage.
5. If hygroscopic agent is put together with the silk products, it would enjoy a better preservation. Or just put away them in a dry environment.
6. A lining cloth is necessary when ironing the silk clothes. The ironing temperature should be no higher than 212F/100C (100C is the best).
- Last updated on Aug. 08, 2022 -
Questions & Answers on China Silk
Asked by Karen from SOUTH AFRICA | Sep. 04, 2016 12:29Reply
I will be visiting Chengdu. Can you recommend a place close by where I can observe silk production?
I would like to see a silkworm farm production and silk weaving.
Answers (1)
Answered by Herty from SPAIN | Sep. 04, 2016 20:35

It is suggested you visit Sichuan Silk Museum, located in the Ertaizi Cultural Block. You can not only know the development of silk, but also experience the weaving by yourself.
Ask a Question
Question Summary (100 characters)
Details (optional) (2,000 characters)