A Brief History of Silk

Is there a finer textile than silk to be found anywhere on earth? It would seem not, as no other material - neither natural nor artificial - has captured the imagination of man in quite the same way that silk has throughout the ages.  

Stop for a moment, and take your high quality silk pocket square from your jacket, and run it through your fingers and over your hands. Allow yourself a moment to just indulge in the softness and smoothness of the fabric, and gaze as the light catches the minuscule threads which have been intricately woven together. This is the very stuff that changed the textile industry around the world back in ancient times, and which continues to fascinate and inspire designers, producers and consumers today.

But where does it come from? And what exactly is silk? Fold away your handkerchief – let us take a walk through history to explore the wonder of this most sought-after of fabrics.

What is Silk?

The world which we inhabit has long since been an artificial one. If you look out of your window today, the chances are you will be greeted with a view comprised of stainless steel, of complex plastics, molded glass and clouds of smog. In a world of man-made materials, silk is a precious gem of a natural fiber, the produce of the wondrous mulberry silkworm (Bombyx Mori), so called as it will only produce silk if fed with the fruit of the mulberry bush. Interestingly, several species of insects and arachnids are capable of producing silk (there is a growing industry concerned with producing high quality suit accessories from spider silk, for example) but the silk of the mulberry silkworm has always been the most highly prized, thanks to the softness of its texture, and the purity of its color.

 The silkworm is not really a worm at all, but rather a caterpillar. It produces silk just before it begins the metamorphosis stage, during which time it becomes a fully grown moth. It wraps itself in layer after layer of silk - a natural protein fiber - in order to make a protective cocoon, and it is at this point that the process must be stopped in order to procure the silk needed for textile production. The silk manufacturers will unwind the densely-wrapped cocoon, and obtain a single, long strand of silk, which can measure up to 1,500 meters. This single strand is then combined with others, in order to make a stronger thread which can be dyed and used to weave cloth. The whole process is a slow and meticulous one, as beautiful as it is delicate, and as complex as it is awe-inspiring.

The Early History of Silk

The story of the silk from which the Robertto’s beautiful pocket square is made begins a very long time ago. So long ago, in fact, that historians and archaeologists are unable to ascertain exactly where and when it all started. Most evidence, however, points to ancient China, where archaeological artifacts have been uncovered which suggests the earliest uses of silk took place around 3600 BC, where it seemed to have been used to enshroud the body of a child. Whether or not it was regularly used for funerary purposes back then is open to speculation. Of course, being a natural product, silk has been made by silkworms since time immemorial, but it was the Chinese who truly mastered the art, and became the envy of the world between 2000 - 500 BC.

The Chinese would have traded silk and silkworms with their neighbors, and the people of the Indus Valley (the original Indian civilization) were also producing silk in large quantities almost four thousand years ago. Traces of silk have been found in Egyptian sarcophagi dating from similar eras, and once trade routes were established into Europe, the Indians and Chinese merchants grew rich on the exchange of silk which passed along the corridor that joined Italy with the Orient - the so called ‘Silk Road’.

Silk in Europe

At some point around the 6th century AD, silk first began to appear in Europe. Imagine the joy and wonder that it must have brought! Europe was relatively undeveloped in comparison to the decadent empires of China, India and Babylon, and the presence of silk must have been something truly special for those more used to horsehair and wool.

While silk quickly became popular in Great Britain and France, and many beautiful examples still exist in royal collections, the European country with the strongest and deepest relationship with silk - then as now - is Italy. The Italian silk industry first began to emerge in the 11th century in Calabria, and by the 12th century, there were major silk centers in Venice, Florence and Genoa, which found great success through the trade in this wonderful textile.

The Silk of Como

Since the 18th century, the undisputed home of silk production in Europe is the city of Como, in Italy’s alpine region. This beautiful part of the country produces around 90% of all the fine silk in Italy, and about 70% of the silk found across all of Europe. The silk of Como is of an unrivalled quality - made by master silk weavers, who have handed down their expertise and skill through the generations, and overseen by designers who understand the fabric like no others.

Why has Como been such an important center for silk over the past couple of centuries? The answer to this question could come in many forms. Firstly, it probably has something to do with the town’s proximity to one of Italy’s largest lakes. The fresh water which is needed for the production of silk is easily accessible, and therefore it makes perfect sense to establish silkworm farms and textiles factories there. Many people, however, would tell you that Como is somewhere which has a ‘culture of beauty’, and that silk production is merely another facet to this already bejeweled part of the world. Majestic alpine landscapes, crystalline, sparkling water, verdant forests and azure skies all come together in this special corner of Italy, giving it a dream-like quality where it seems only natural that the finest silks would be made.

So, the next time you run your fingers over the exquisite smoothness of a beautiful silk pocket square, or admire the colors of a Robertto’s pocket square as it brightens up your suit, take a moment to think of the incredible history this material carries with it. Give thanks to the centuries of discovery and invention that led to silk’s modern incarnation, and rest assured that it will remain in its rightful place - as the finest fabric known to man - for the centuries to come.