According to legend, the young empress Lei-Tsu or Xi Ling Shi of China was enjoying a cup of tea in the royal garden when a cocoon fell from the above Mulberry tree. It landed right inside her cup, and when she fished it out, it unraveled into a single shimmering thread almost a mile long.
The royal family, so impressed by the pearlescent sheen, used the delicate filament to weave exotic fabrics first for the royals only, then to trade throughout the world. And because the rare silk grew in high demand, the emperor issued an imperial decree with punishment of death to keep the source—the silkworms living within their palace garden’s mulberry trees—a secret. A secret kept for more than 2,000 years.
So how did the secret of silk spill beyond China’s borders?
In THE WOMAN IN THE WHITE KIMONO, Tori’s father offers several possibilities--all of which I found in various folklore with roots of truth documented in historical texts. It’s in the retelling over many years that the stories become embellished.
One version claims the secret of silk production was revealed by a spoiled princess. She was betrothed to a prince from a faraway land and couldn’t bear the thought of living without new luxurious silk garments, so she hid cocoons in her wedding headdress, knowing guards wouldn’t dare to search her.
Another version claims two Nestorian monks on a goodwill visit to China used their hollow bamboo canes to smuggle out the worms.
And another story claims two Japanese archeologists traveling the 4000-mile silk road on expedition were really spies for the Jōdo Shin-shū sect in Kyōto who stole eggs and kidnapped four girls practiced in the art of sericulture--the art of rearing of silkworms for silk production.
Regardless of how the secret of silk spilled from China’s borders, it remained a rich international industry until nylon and synthetic fibers were introduced in the late 1970s. Japan's last silk factory closed in April of 2003 with silk trading ending in March of 2004.
Some silk facts:
· The silkworms used for silk are never allowed to eclose or emerge from the cocoon. To do so would damage the continuous fiber filament. Instead, they are placed in a hot-air chamber or boiling water where the caterpillar dies.
· It takes nearly 300 individual cocoons to weave a single 90-by-90 scarf like Tori’s in THE WOMAN IN THE WHITE KIMONO.