By Shari Fuller
I am currently working on an historical sewing curriculum, and what better place to start than at the beginning. I am thoroughly enjoying researching, choosing topics, and putting together sewing projects. Did you know that silk has been around almost as long as wool, linen, and cotton? In fact, it dates back to the very beginning of Chinese civilization… about the time that the Great Pyramids of Giza were being built! There is an interesting legend about the discovery of silk, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Long long ago, in the obscure and mysterious past, while the Egyptians were building the Great Pyramids of Giza, and God was leading Abraham out of Ur into the Promised Land, a fourteen-year-old girl made made a wonderful discovery that would set the course of China’s magnificent history. Her name was Leizu, and she was the young wife of the Hoangti, the Yellow Emperor of China.
Hoangti had planted a beautiful garden that had a large grove of mulberry trees. Leizu loved walking through the garden and in the heat of the day she would retreat to the mulberry grove where the leafy trees cast large patches of shade on the ground. One day, as she walked toward one of her favorite trees, she found that there was hardly any shade at all. When she examined the tree, she found that all the leaves had been eaten so full of holes that they looked like mere skeletons, but she couldn’t see what had caused the damage. Leizu walked to another tree, sat down in the shade, and thought about the problem. The next day she found that the leaves of that tree had been eaten away as well. That evening, Leizu spoke to her husband about the mysterious creature that was eating the mulberry leaves. Hoangti loved his garden and was very concerned about his mulberry trees, so he went with Leizu the next day to see for himself. This time, the found that the leaves were teeming with tiny worms that were hungrily eating away the leaves. Not knowing what to do about the problem, Leizu began watching the tiny little creatures as they ate the mulberry leaves and grew and grew until they were big and fat. After three weeks, they suddenly stopped eating and began to spin a fine silky thread that they wrapped around their bodies until they were completely enclosed in a soft white cocoon.
Leizu was captivated by the silky threads the worms had spun and one day while she was walking with her husband among the mulberry trees she said, “I believe I could find a way to weave those threads into cloth.”
But how could you unwind the threads?” he asked.
“I’ll find a way,” replied Leizu.
The fine threads of the cocoons were stuck together, and no matter how carefully Leizu worked, she could only unwind them a little bit before the fragile threads broke in her gentle fingers. Determined to find a way, Leizu spent the next several weeks tried many different ways to loosen the threads with no success. Perplexed, she took a cup of her favorite tea to the garden to think about the problem. By this time, it was hard to find a tree with enough leaves to cast even a little shade and when she finally found a place to sit down with her tea – Plop! – A cocoon fell from the tree into her cup. As she fished it out, she noticed something strange begin to happen. The outside of the cocoon had softened and Leizu saw a loose thread. Gingerly, she began winding the thread around her finger and to her delight, the delicate thread remained intact.
The fine silky threads from the cocoons were unlike fibers that anyone had ever used before. The fine strands sparkled and shimmered in the sunlight. Individually, they were very fragile, but when several strands were spun together they became surprisingly strong. Even with several strands spun together, however, the thread was too fine to be used with any existing looms, so Leizu had to create a special loom before she could weave her new thread into cloth. Her efforts were rewarded, for the result was an extraordinarily fine cloth that shone and shimmered in the light and was more beautiful than anything anyone had ever seen before. Leizu had her maids weave more of the cloth and dye it beautiful colors to make beautiful clothes for her and Hoangti to wear on special occasions. Everyone who saw them was amazed.
At first, only Leizu and Hoangti were allowed to wear clothing made from the silk cloth; there was only a limited amount of cloth available and the richness of the fabric seemed only suitable for nobility. Then, Leizu had another idea. She asked her husband to plant more mulberry trees and when she saw the leaves begin to disappear, she watched and waited as the silk worms grew fat and began to spin their cocoons once again. Over time, Leizu continued to expand her mulberry grove to produce more and more silkworms and slowly built a thriving silk industry. Originally, the entire production of silk, from cultivating the worms to weaving the cloth, was restricted to women. As a luxury product, it was deemed unimportant to the growth of China. Although silk had become more and more plentiful, the cloth itself was still so time consuming to make that only the very wealthy could afford it. Years later, when traders from the West came to China, they were awestruck by the luxurious cloth and were willing to pay very high prices to bring it back with them. As the precious silk cloth made its way to the Middle East, Egypt, and the Mediterranean, demand for the exotic fabric exploded and a lucrative trade route now known as the Silk Road was established to export silk to the west bringing gold, silver and wool to China. Silk, worth more than its weight in gold, became China’s most valuable commodity.From then on, the people of China called Leizu “The Empress of the Silkworm”, because they knew that the young woman who had discovered the small worm had helped them to build a majestic empire.
In honor of Leizu, let’s give away some silk ribbon! Leave a comment below to be entered in a drawing for one of two silk ribbon packs that will include two yards each of the 1-inch, 3/8-inch, and 1/8-inch ribbon. The winner can choose from one of four colors; dusty rose, dragonfly blue, pomegranate, or herbal green. Winners will be announced in next months newsletter.
Stories about “Eureka” moments are always fascinating. I suspect I coukd have seen a million cocoons without ever thinking, “I could weave with that”.
It does not surprise me that the ingenuity of a woman spawned an entire industry! Thanks, Leizu!
Very interesting!! I had researched the making of silk a couple years ago but never came across this story. I have 2 Chinese granddaughters that I am going to tell this story to. Thank you so much for sharing and all of your hard work.
As usual, very eduactive and interresting to read! The history of fabric is fascinating!
That is a fun little history lesson. I’m sure the first to use silk for weaving had a ton of trial and error, but I’m glad they did it as silk is so pretty.
Thank you for the history lesson. I find it very interesting!
I enjoyed hearing the story of the origins of silk fabric. Thank you!
The story of Leizu is fascinating! I can’t imagine unwinding all those cocoons, let alone making the fabric.
Beautiful legend! So concrete in my mind that it felt real — alive — in my inner eye. I could easily see the young royal couple walking among their treasured mulberry trees, despairing of their future, eventually transforming into joy and wonder at the luminous quality of silken threads when young Leizu weaves her first silk fabric, then pure jubilence when she sees how richly the new fabric absorbs her dyes. The luminescence of that discovery must have overwhelmed their hearts and seemed magical or even miraculous to their adoring subjects. — It made me think of a poem that I found online at poetrysoup.com. The poem, entitled “Kingdoms of Sik” is by Raul Moreno. It reads thusly: “Worms in multitudes / Strewn empires in the trees: / Palace made of thread.” — As you might surmise, I would love to win some silken ribbon and would truly treasure it. Thank you for sharing this amazing story. And thank you for offering your beautiful patterns through PixieFaire. I love their beauty and historical accuracy, not only for creating vintage-inspired doll clothes, but also because they inspire me to transform their design techniques into rich historical costumes in my local theater productions. Many thanks and best wishes to your continued success and future inspiration. God bless.
Interesting story about a beautiful fabric. Would love to win this ribbon to use on my dollclothes.
What a beautiful beginning of the treasured cloth! You could just picture this story taking place, weaving a thread in your mind.
Would love to win the silk ribbon. If you like this kind of story about the origins of needlework supplies, you would like ‘The Coat Route’ by Meg Lukens Noonan.
I really enjoy reading all your history sewing articles. There is so much to learn and I am very curious about the Historical Sewing Curriculum you are working on. Is this being done for a lecture tour, a special Historical Sewing class maybe on-line, perhaps a book or for posting right here. I know I would love to take such a class. Maybe you could offer it on-line. Very curious and always eager to learn.
I just taught a class on silk ribbon embroidery to introduce the students to some basic stitches and methods for handling the ribbon. This got me inspired to try another project myself. Silk ribbon is so beautiful to work with!
Interesting reading. it’s always fun to read stories of the fabric which is so plentiful today.
Kinda of all of the above. I am slowly pulling all my ideas together and hope to have something organized by the end of the summer. I have few requests for short presentations and homeschool classes and I am wanting to put together a book and online class. My idea is to teach history through clothing and through the clothing teach sewing.
Will have to look into that Jane, thank you!
Ha! One click on Amazon is a dangerous place for me… found it and ordered it in less than a minute 🙂
I am delighted to hear that you are working on a historical sewing curriculum. I love the historical aspect of your patterns. I would love to win the silk ribbon pack.
I always loved this story!
I am a living historian with a focus on clothing and dolls so I do teach both of those through my hobby. I love it and love working with silk.
Weaving with those terribly delicate threads sounds painful.
I have been to China and seen the cocoons in a water bath being unwound and spun into thread. It was fascinating to watch.
I love sewing with silk. Thank you for this article.
Very interesting history lesson!
Years ago I went to a Chinese exhibit at The Ontario Science Centre where there was an active display of Chinese embroidery. A woman was working on a silk panel for a screen or fan (or something else). The picture was different on each side of the panel but she only worked from one side. She embroidered a tiger on the side she was working on but the other side was a butterfly with a flower. She used the same thread but somehow different pictures were created. The thread she used was very thin, a few silk thread spun together and it took a very long time to finish that screen – months I believe. Such patience but so beautiful and delicate!
I’m fascinated by stories like this one! How did our early ancestors also figure out how to manipulate cotton, flax, and wool to make a thread and then invent the weaving process? Without them, we’d still be wearing animal skins for clothing!
Very interesting. The production of any fine cloth is interesting, but the making of silk is even more.
This is a beautiful legend. The newest book in Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings series deals with silk production in China in the 1850s.
That was a fascinating story, thank you very much for sharing it!
Your interest in authenticity shines through all your designs. Thanks for sharing your historical knowledge.
What an amazing story on how silk was produced. Love all your stories.
A beautiful legend for a beautiful fabric.
Great story , thanks again!!
Thank you for sharing. A few years ago we took our first retirement trip and went through Salt Lake City. Being museum buffs, we stopped at the big Morman museum. They had a room honoring the silk production in Utah. There was very little information beyond that they had cultivaed silk woms. Do you know anything about that? Thanks.
I don’t know anything about silk production in Utah… actually, I didn’t know it had ever been produced here. From what I understand, the silk worms only like Mulberry leaves and the leaves from only a couple of other trees so they can only be raised where these trees are available.
What a lovely legend! I always enjoy stories like that!
I am always interested in how things came to be. This historic tale illustrates how one woman’s initiative changed the economy of an entire country. Thank you for sharing this with all of us.
Thank you for this beautiful story and all of your beautiful patterns.
A very interesting and informative article! I love the dragonfly blue color of this ribbon.
That is an amazing story, I love reading about ingenuity–Especially in moments like those!
Thank you for all the research you do to share the history of clothing and fabric. How funny that a little “accident” like a cocoon falling into a cup of tea, could give birth to such a lovely fabric.