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Ancient China

Legend of Silk

History for Kids >> Ancient China

What is silk?

Silk is a thin, but strong fiber that silkworms produce when they are making their cocoons. It can be woven into a very soft and smooth fabric. Silk fabric was invented in Ancient China and played an important role in their culture and economy for thousands of years.


Women making silk cloth

Legend of Silk

Legend has it that the process for making silk cloth was first invented by the wife of the Yellow Emperor, Leizu, around the year 2696 BC. The idea for silk first came to Leizu while she was having tea in the imperial gardens. A cocoon fell into her tea and unraveled. She noticed that the cocoon was actually made from a long thread that was both strong and soft.

Leizu then discovered how to combine the silk fibers into a thread. She also invented the silk loom that combined the threads into a soft cloth. Soon Leizu had a forest of mulberry trees for the silkworms to feed on and taught the rest of China how to make silk.

Making Silk

The ancient Chinese bred special moths to produce the quality silk they wanted. Here are the steps in the process for making silk:
  • A moth lays 500 or so eggs and then dies
  • Baby worms hatch from the eggs are fed mulberry leaves for one month until they are fat
  • The worms spin cocoons
  • The cocoons are steamed to kill the growing moth inside
  • The cocoons are rinsed in hot water to loosen the threads
  • Women would unwind the cocoons and then combine six or so fibers into silk threads
  • The threads are woven into cloth
  • The cloth is then pounded to make it softer
Silk in Chinese Culture

Silk cloth was extremely valuable in Ancient China. Wearing silk was an important status symbol. At first, only members of the royal family were allowed to wear silk. Later, silk clothing was restricted to only the noble class. Merchants and peasants were not allowed to wear silk. Silk was even used as money during some Ancient Chinese dynasties.

Keeping Silk a Secret

Silk became a prized export for the Chinese. Nobles and kings of foreign lands desired silk and would pay high prices for the cloth. The emperors of China wanted to keep the process for making silk a secret. Anyone caught telling the secret or taking silkworms out of China was put to death.

Smuggling Silk

The Chinese managed to keep silk a secret for over 1000 years. However, in 550 AD the secret of silk became known to other countries when two monks from the Byzantine Empire managed to smuggle some silkworm eggs out of the country. They hid the eggs inside of their bamboo walking sticks.

Interesting Facts about Silk
  • It wasn't until the Qing dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1911, that peasants were allowed to wear silk clothing.
  • Silk was used for other purposes than clothing such a paper, fishing lines, bowstrings, and canvas for painting.
  • Around the thirteenth century, Italy became one of the major producers of silk. Some of the finest silk in the world is made in Italy today.
  • Silk clothing was often embroidered with designs. The most popular designs were of flowers and birds.
  • Silk was such an important product from China that the trade route from Europe to China became known as the Silk Road.
Take a ten question quiz on the Legend of Silk questions page.

For more information on the civilization of Ancient China:

Overview
Timeline of Ancient China
Silk Road
The Great Wall
Forbidden City
Terracotta Army
Geography of Ancient China
Inventions of Ancient China
Glossary and Terms

Dynasties
Major Dynasties
Zhou Dynasty
Han Dynasty
Tang Dynasty
Song Dyanasty
Ming Dynasty

Culture
Daily Life in Ancient China
Religion
Mythology
Numbers and Colors
Legend of Silk
Chinese Calendar
Festivals
Civil Service
Chinese Art
Clothing

People
Emperor Qin
Genghis Khan
Kublai Khan
Marco Polo
Sun Tzu
Zheng He

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