The Silkworm | The Little Creature That Once Catapulted World Trade

Would it be a far stretch of the imagination to propose that the tiny silkworm was responsible for the creation of The Silk Road? Every society has animals with whom they have shared a close kinship and with whom they have co-created the sweeping changes that took place in their society.

Silk was a fiercely guarded secret of the Chinese who controlled its manufacture and sale for close to three millennia. Trade of the precious fabric created by the silkworm was what catapulted the trade route that linked China with the Middle East and Europe.

Silk’s bright colours and its lustre and texture marked it as a luxury product both in the domestic market as well as beyond its borders. At one point, silk cloth was so valuable that it was recognised as a union of exchange alongside coinage.

The development of sericulture–the production of silk and the rearing of silkworms–most likely took many hundreds of years of trial and error in several different regions.

The secret, which was once fiercely guarded by the Chinese, would reach the West in 6th century CE. Before the knowledge of this secret came to light, the Romans, who were great consumers of silk, believed that it was a vegetable fibre; much like cotton.

The silkworm has a four-stage cycle that consists of: egg, larva, pupa and adult. The term silkworm, in particular, refers to the larva stage of the silk moth, which is a member of the Lepidoptera family that includes moths and butterflies.

If the silkworm were allowed to survive and complete the pupal phase in its lifecycle, it would emerge as an adult moth. The silk moth is unusual as it is one of the few insects to have been fully domesticated.

Women are said to have played an important role in the manufacture and dissemination of silk. Sericulture was traditionally women’s work. Silk-making encompassed planting mulberry, raising silkworms, unreeling silk, making thread as well as designing and weaving fabric.

While the silkworm may not be solely responsible for the creation of the Silk Road; one thing is for sure, it never would have happened without it.

A Chinese Song dynasty painting attributed to Liang Kai

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