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Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V25, Page 97 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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SILK, a fibrous substance produced by many insects, principally in the form of a cocoon or covering within which the creatures are enclosed and protected during the period of their principal transformations. The webs and nests, &c., formed by spiders are also of silk. But the fibres used for manufacturing purposes are exclusively produced by the mulberry silk-moth of China, Bombyx mori, and a few other moths closely allied to that insect. Among the Chinese the name of the silkworm is " si, " Korean " soi "; to the ancient Greeks it became known as Tip, the nation whence it came was to them libses, and the fibre itself r prxov, whence the Latin sericum, the French sole, the German Seide and the English silk. History.—The silk industry originated in China; and according to native records it has existed there from a very remote period. The empress, known as the lady of Si-ling, wife of a famous emperor, Huang-ti (2640 B.c.), encouraged the cultivation of the mulberry tree, the rearing of the worms and the reeling of silk. This empress is said to have devoted herself personally to the care of silkworms, and she is by the Chinese credited with the invention of the loom. A voluminous ancient literature testifies not only to the antiquity but also to the importance of Chinese sericulture, and to the care and attention bestowed on it by royal and noble families. The Chinese guarded the secrets of their valuable art with vigilant jealousy; and there is no doubt that many centuries passed before the culture spread beyond the country of its origin. Through Korea a knowledge of the silkworm and its produce reached Japan, but not before the early part of the 3rd century. One of the most ancient books of Japanese history, the Nihongi, states that towards A.D. 300 some Koreans were sent from Japan to China to engage competent people to teach the arts of weaving and preparing silk goods. They brought with them four Chinese girls, who instructed the court and the people in the art of plain and figured weaving; and to the honour of these pioneer silk weavers a temple was erected in the province of Settsu. Great efforts were made to encourage the industry, which from that period grew into one of national importance. At a period probably little later a knowledge of the working of silk travelled westward, and the cultivation of the silkworm was established in India. According to a tradition the eggs of the insect and the seed of the mulberry tree were carried to India by a Chinese princess concealed in the lining of her head dress. The fact that sericulture was in India first estalished in the valley of the Brahmaputra and in the tract lying between that river and the Ganges renders it probable that it was introduced overland from the Chinese empire. From the Ganges valley the silkworm was slowly carried westward and spread in Khotan, Persia and the states of Central Asia. Most critics recognize in the obscure word d'meseq or d'mesheq, Amos iii. 12, a name of silk corresponding to the Arabic dimaks, late Greek p.fraEa, English damask, and also follow the ancients in understanding meshi, Ezek. xvi. 10, 13, of " silken gauze." But the first notice of the silkworm in Western literature occurs in Aristotle, Hist. anim. v. 19 (17), 11 (6), where he speaks of " a great worm which has horns and so differs from others. At its first metamorphosis it produces a caterpillar, then a bombylius and lastly a chrysalis—all these changes taking place within six months. From this animal women separate and reel off the cocoons and afterwards spin them. It is said that this was first spun in the island of Cos by Pamphile, daughter of Plates." Aristotle's vague knowledge of the worm may have been derived from information acquired by the Greeks with Alexander the Great; but long before this time raw silk must have begun to be imported at Cos, where it was woven into a gauzy tissue, the famous Coa vestis, which revealed rather than clothed the form. Towards the beginning of the Christian era raw silk began to form an important and costly item among the prized products of the East which came to Rome. Allusions to silk and its source became common in classical literature; but, although these references show familiarity with the material, they are singularly vague and inaccurate as to its source; even Pliny knew nothing more about the silkworm than could be learned from Aristotle's description. The silken textures which at first found their way to Rome were necessarily of enormous cost, and their use by men was deemed a piece of effeminate luxury. From an anecdote of Aurelian, who neither used silk himself nor would allow his wife to possess a single silken garment, we learn that silk was worth its weight in gold. Notwithstanding its price and the restraints otherwise put on the use of silk the trade grew. Under Justinian a monopoly of the trade and manufacture was reserved to the emperor, and
End of Article: SILK

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