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Silk - from the Cocoon to the Catwalk

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 8 Apr 2019 | comments*Discuss
Silk Silkworm Journey Fashion Mulberry

For thousands of years, silk has been considered one of the finest and most sensual fabrics available. Most people realise it's produced by silkworms, but how are they cultivated and how does it travel from the silkworm farms to your local wholesaler, then onto the catwalk? And what can this process tell us about how fabrics develop their reputation and value?

Silk was first used to produce fabric in Ancient China, where the secret of its manufacture was carefully guarded but eventually leaked out. Although there are several insects that produce silk, it's the mulberry silkworm that is used commercially. Most silk sold in Britain originates in China or India, where large scale mulberry plantations enable the cultivation of silkworms on a commercial scale.

Cultivating Silkworms

In earlier days, silk cocoons were collected directly from mulberry trees. These days they live out their lives in artificial habitats and the mulberry trees merely provide their food. This enables them to be kept away from loud noises, bright light, strong smells or chill draughts which can affect the quality of the silk they produce. Caring for them is an intensive process which requires round-the-clock labour.

After they have eaten enough, the silkworms form cocoons around their bodies just like caterpillars, and this is where the silk comes from. These are allowed to dry, then baked or steamed to kill the worms and dipped in hot water to loosen the fibres of the cocoon, which are unravelled and woven together into threads. This can now be done by machine, but it is still a slow, laborious process.

Producing Silk

Once the silk threads have been created, they need to be woven into fabric, usually in a different factory - Chinese silk is often exported as thread and woven here in Britain, but Indian silk is usually woven close to its site of origin, hence the greater variety of patterns available as each small factory has its own style. Indian silk fabrics are usually more delicate and their production involves more hand work.

On arriving in Britain, Chinese silk is often washed to shrink it and make it more dense, giving it extra strength and making it easier for the end customer to look after. You can recognise this sort of silk by its thicker texture. Unwashed silk garments should be labelled as dry clean only.

All silk is vulnerable to being damage by water or bright light, or by hungry insects. For this reason it has to be transported very carefully. It is usually wound into bales which are then closely packed with an insect repellent and stored in crates. Because of its weight, silk freight almost always travels by sea - this reduces the attendant costs but means that it can take some time to arrive in Britain, creating extra administrative work for wholesalers.

The Price of Silk

When you buy silk to make into clothes for your fashion business, it helps to understand the various costs involved in its production. You can apply this approach to other fabrics, too, by learning a little about where they come from. Silk is expensive because you're paying for the running costs of the silkworm farm, the running costs of the factory, labour, storage and transport. Varying economic conditions in its country of origin, relative to Britain, will cause the price to fluctuate.

Because silk is both expensive and delicate, it's important to know exactly what you're doing before you start working with it. You can make up trial versions of your design using substitute fabrics, but bear in mind that silk has less stretch than most and that the finished product will hang differently.

Because of the way it hangs and the way it reflects the light, silk looks particularly impressive on the catwalk and in promotional photographs. Beware of putting it in shop windows where the sun can damage it, and when you're handling it, think about the journey it has made and all the care that has gone into its production - then you can really appreciate what it's worth.

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