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.