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  • Fri 22 Apr ’16, 10:00am – 4:00pm
  • Sat 23 Apr ’16, 10:00am – 4:00pm
  • Sun 24 Apr ’16, 10:00am – 4:00pm
  • Tue 26 Apr ’16, 10:00am – 4:00pm
  • Wed 27 Apr ’16, 10:00am – 4:00pm
  • Thu 28 Apr ’16, 10:00am – 4:00pm
  • Fri 29 Apr ’16, 10:00am – 4:00pm
  • Sat 30 Apr ’16, 10:00am – 4:00pm
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Marlborough Provincial Museum and Archives, 26 Arthur Baker Pl, Blenheim


All Ages

Silk, one of the oldest fibres known to man, originated in China. The history of silk is both enchanting and illustrious.

The Legend
According to well-established Chinese legend, Empress Hsi Ling Shi, wife of Emperor Huang Ti (also called the Yellow Emperor), was the first person to accidentally discover silk as weavable fibre.
One day, when the empress was sipping tea under a mulberry tree, a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. The empress became so enamoured with the shimmering threads, she discovered their source, the Bombyx mori silkworm, found in the white mulberry. The empress soon developed sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom. Thus began the history of silk.

Whether or not the legend is accurate, it is certain that the earliest surviving references to silk history and production place it in China; and that for nearly 3 millennia, the Chinese had a global monopoly on silk production.

The Silk Road
Though first reserved for Chinese royalty, silk spread gradually through the Chinese culture both geographically and socially. From there, silken garments began to reach regions throughout Asia. Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants, because of its texture and lustre.

Demand for this exotic fabric eventually created the lucrative trade route now known as the Silk Road, taking silk westward and bringing gold, silver and wools to the East. It was named the Silk Road after its most valuable commodity – silk was considered even more precious than gold! Clearly, a basic understanding of silk history would not be complete without understanding the crucial role played by the Silk Road in its global trade and introduction to the world outside of China.
The Silk Road was some 4,000 miles long stretching from Eastern China to the Mediterranean Sea. A caravan tract, the Silk Road followed the Great Wall of China to the north-west, bypassing the Takla Makan desert, climbing the Pamir mountain range, crossing modern-day Afghanistan and going on to the Levant, with a major trading market in Damascus. From there, the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Few people travelled the entire route; goods were handled mostly by a series of middlemen.

A Well-kept Secret
The Chinese realised the value of the beautiful material they were producing and kept its secret safe from the rest of the world for more than 30 centuries. Travellers were searched thoroughly at border crossings and anyone caught trying to smuggle eggs, cocoons or silkworms out of the country were summarily executed. Thus, under penalty of death, the mystery of sericulture remained a well-kept secret for almost three thousand years.

China gradually re-captured her position as the world's biggest producer and exporter of raw silk and silk yarn – proving that the history of silk follows its own boomerang principles. Today, around 125,000 metric tons of silk is produced in the world. Almost two thirds of that production takes place in China.

The other major producers are India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and Brazil. United States is by far the largest importer of silk products today.

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