Silk (< OE sioloc probably < L. SERICVS / Gr. σηρικóς ("silken") < L. SERES / Gr. Σηρες ("Chinese") or alternatively < Ch. 丝 or 絲(pronounced "sė") meaning "silk", the pictogram representing two strands of silk.) is a natural fiber that can be woven into textiles. It is obtained from the cocoon of the silkworm larva, in the process known as sericulture, which kills the larvae.
Silk was first developed in early China, possibly as early as 6000 BC and definitely by 3000 BC. Legend gives credit to a Chinese Empress Xi Ling Shi. Though first reserved for the Emperors of China, its use spread gradually through Chinese culture both geographically and socially. From there, silken garments began to reach regions throughout Asia. Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants, because of its texture and lustre. Because of the high demand for the fabric, silk was one of the staples of international trade prior to industrialization.
Perhaps the first evidence of the silk trade is that of an Egyptian mummy of 1070 BC. In subsequent centuries, the silk trade reached as far as the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. This trade was so extensive that the major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia has become known as the Silk Road.
The Emperors of China strove to keep the knowledge of sericulture secret from other nations, in order to maintain the Chinese monopoly on its production. This effort at secrecy had mixed success. Sericulture reached Korea around 200 BC with Chinese settlers, and by 300 AD the practice had been established in India. Although the Roman Empire knew of and traded in silk, the secret was only to reach Europe around AD 550, via the Empire of Byzantium. Legend has it that the monks working for the emperor Justinian were the first to bring silkworm eggs to Constantinople in hollow canes.
Venetian merchants traded extensively in silk and encouraged silk growers to settle in Italy. By the 13th century Italian silk was a significant source of trade. Italian silk was so popular in Europe that Francis I of France invited Italian silkmakers to France to create a French silk industry, especially in Lyon. The French Revolution interrupted production before Napoleon took power.
James I of England introduced silk growing to the American colonies around 1619, ostensibly to discourage tobacco planting. Only the Shakers in Kentucky adopted the practice. In the 1800s a new attempt at a silk industry began with European-born workers in Paterson, New Jersey, and the city became a US silk centre, although Japanese imports were still more important.
World War Two interrupted the silk trade from Japan. Silk prices increased dramatically and US industry begun to look for substitutes, which led to the use of synthetics like nylon. Synthetic silks have also been made from lyocell, a type of cellulose fibre, and are often difficult to distinguish from real silk.
Silk has recently come under fire from animal rights activists who maintain that the common practice of boiling silkworms alive in their cocoons is cruel.
In addition to clothing manufacture and other handicrafts, silk is also used for items like parachutes, bicycle tires, comforter filling and artillery gunpowder bags. Silk undergoes a special manufacturing process to make it adequate for its use in surgery as non-absorbable sutures. Chinese doctors have also used it to make prosthetic arteries.