Silk And Its Succession
( Originally Published 1930 )
WITHOUT silk as the weaver's thread, the story of textiles would lose its glamour. It was this marvelous material that made possible the translation of the design into fabrics of surpassing beauty and in-spired artists to still nobler compositions. Myth and history blend in their usual charm to preserve a story of the discovery of silk, for it might be called a discovery as well as a development. The story goes that four thousand years ago an empress of China, reposing and poetizing among the flowers of her garden, saw on a leaf of her mulberry tree, a group of pale greenish worms of infinitesimal size hungrily devouring the succulent foliage. Being of tender heart, she refrained from having the creatures stamped out of existence by the foot of her attendant. The next week she again took a peep at the fascinating though repel-lent sight and found that the tiny worms had grown preposterously in the interim and had spread over the tree in search of pastures new. Their feeding capacity was abnormal except on one day at the end of each week's time, when they grew slothful, refused food and cast their skins, which were then uncomfortably tight. Even though her favorite mulberry tree was becoming bare, she suffered that annoyance to observe the habits of the worms. At last came a day when the worms began to turn to a translucent yellow, and to wrap themselves in a fine thread which flowed from the mouth. The cocoon being complete, and the Em-press endowed with patience, she had the ultimate pleasure of seeing a butterfly emerge and in its turn lay the eggs which produced yet more worms. Any-body might have done as much as this, but it is believed that the Empress Si-Ling-Shi was the first to experiment with the cocoons and to discover that the thread of which they were made could be unwound (better if the pupae were still within) and spun into a yarn from which the weavers made fabrics more lovely than any in the world.
China is the country of silk. When sericulture was first commenced is lost in the mist of centuries long before the Christian Era. The story of the Empress Si-Ling-Shió2640 B.C.ómakes a pretty legend even though it be only legend, but the fact is established that the cultivation of the silkworm began in China and existed there and there only for many centuries before it was introduced to other countries.
All records of old travelers in the East speak with delight of the marvelous silken textiles of China on which flowers bloom as in a garden, and which it is a luxury to pass through the hand. The Chinese themselves were clothed entirely in silk. To other peoples it was a marvel, for the materials of their fabrics was wool, linen or cotton.
China knew the value of her silk, she had abundant proof from other nations that all the world desired it. And she therefore guarded the secret of sericulture and silk weaving. That the two are distinct and separate industries helped China to retain for many centuries her unique position.
Sericulture relates to the worm and his care. It might be said that primarily it relates to the mulberry tree. Where that refuses to grow and put out succulent leaves the worm cannot produce the cocoon of high grade, for the silkworm feeds solely upon those leaves. This tree, which is shorn of 'its leaves for the worm as a sheep is shorn of his wool, grows only in mild climates where it can revive and grow fresh leaves after the season of the worm's appetite is past.
Whether or not the original silkworm observed by the Empress Si-Ling-Shi was the self-indulgent and tender creature of today, we cannot know, but he seems like any highly bred animal in his demands for special food, even temperature and no draughts, and he also needs the offices of a gentle hand if he feels languid when the time comes for spinning his cocoon. And his size for a worm is prodigious.
All wrapped in his self-made silk he becomes the commercial cocoon, but still he occupies the attention of his servitors, for he must not die until he is taken to the place where human hands may unwrap him with almost as much skill as he employed in the enveloping. His intention of emerging as a butterfly ends with his immersion in hot liquid. A few of his kind are allowed to live that eggs may be supplied for the next crop of cocoons.
In old China the work then went into the hands of deft maids who found the glued end of the worm's thread and reeled it off as one reels cotton from a spool. The process thus begun ends in the woven textile, but first the thread is spun, composed of varying numbers of the worm's filament according to the thickness required. In modern parlance this is called the yarn.
That the first silk fabrics were Chinese is a fact of history, but none of them remain to show us their beauty. We owe to the explorations of Sir Aurel Stein a bit of silk of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.). The earliest examples show a surprisingly beautiful blending of the Chinese and the Hellenistic in the woven figures.
Taking into consideration the exigencies of sericulture and the niceties of metamorphosing the cocoon into a weavable thread for the loom, it is easily seen why China could keep her secret and was for so many centuries the source of silk.
Silk weaving is recorded by all countries of the East, but sericulture remained exclusively China's. Other lands were forced, in order to possess the prized material, to buy from China the silk thread all ready for the loom, or the cocoons from which to make the threads. Over the trade routes the Chinese then sent their shimmering silks, their cocoons and their silken yarn. But sericulture was theirs alone.
Aristotle speaks of silk. Gauze of Cos was famous in the time of Alexander the Great. Perhaps the veils of Salome were made of it. Rome had woven silks but worth their weight in gold when it came to purchasing. Persia, India, both close to China, wove in silk. Egypt in the north had silks woven by the Copts in the early centuries of our era. China furnished the product of the silkworm for all of these.
The secrets of China gradually leaked out. Credence is given to the manner of their reaching Japan about 300 A.D. and Byzantium the capital of the Eastern Empire in 55o, under the Emperor Justinian. Japan sent some Koreans to China to engage silk instructors. The result was their persuading four Chinese girls to return with them to Japan and teach the processes necessary for figure weaving of silk. Byzantium received instructions from two Persian Nestorian monks in 55o whose adventures smack of the dishonorable. Having traveled as holy men through China, they learned there the processes of sericulture. It was comparatively a simple matter, though an overt, to conceal within their pilgrim staves the silkworm's eggs and the seed of the mulberry. With these they left China and reached Byzantium. Thereafter in that city silk production rose high, and spread both east to Asia Minor and Syria, and west to Europe. India under the Mongols in 1525 reached her highest point in silk production. Persia under Shah Abbas (1586-1625) developed her most exquisite silks.
The figure of Shah Abbas stands out brilliantly in the history of Persian art. After the Sassanian kings came centuries that we skip with easy indifference, but in the reign of this famous man there occurred a revival of the arts and of poetry, and among it all a fresh supply of motives for silken fabrics. It is useless to praise their beauty on the printed page, one must see the actual examples to understand the patient talent and talented patience that produced these lovely results. This was the time when patterns were made with slim youths and maids dallying among the trees of the Persian gardens, armed with musical instruments for enchantment instead of the older arrow aimed at a wild animal of the hunt. A simpler pattern but full of poetic suggestion is the nightingale and the rose, which recalls the story of the bird's adoration of the flower with the deadly thorn.
It is said that a grandfather of Shah Abbas sent artist weavers into China to learn the magic of the looms in that country of silk, and that these men returning brought a memory of Chinese motives and reproduced them. Thus we see the cloud-motive and the dragon creep into Persian fabrics.
Tradition agrees that the worms' eggs did leave China by a trick, and sericulture began in the Neat East and Europe. Thenceforth Europe had in her hand the perfect material for executing the marvelous wealth of design which began with the Gothic,, glorified the Renaissance, beautified the brilliant Eighteenth Century and nowówe come suddenly upon artificial silk which emerges like the genii from the bottle and fills the sky.
Remembering the astounding spread of the Moslem Empire, it is easy to see the Mohammedan carrying with him the silken textiles, introducing their manufacture into Sicily, when Palermo became the center of European silks in the Tenth to the Thirteenth Centuries, with weavers from the Orient and designs both Sassanian and Byzantine.
And it is easy to see that as the new craft came from the Islamic East it brought with it the ornament, the pine of India, the animals and flowers of Persia. Thus Byzantine designs and those of Sicily bear close resemblance.
The silks of Sicily were woven by migrating crafts-men from Persia and India, and they, too, contributed a share of old tradition. The birds and beasts of their invention are among the most entrancing ever woven. The Sicilians freed their groups from the encircling roundel or ogival band and threw them into the liberty of an ornamented space.
Silk went appropriately and naturally to Italy, where in the Thirteenth Century its manufactory was extensive. Venice took it easily from Constantinople, and Lucca took it from Sicily. Venice was partly under the domination of the Near East, and Sicily was taken by Charles of Anjou for the French in 1266. Sicilian weavers then fled to Lucca, where were developed those astounding designs of pomegranates and leaf motives continued by Florence after Lucca's brief flowering.
The Moslem took silk to Spain, and with it his especial and peculiar ornament which prevailed for centuries and is pleasantly detected in the design of today.
All Europe was draped with magnificent products of the silk looms in the Sixteenth Century. Every ruler who had in him the generous heart of a "father of his country," chafed at enriching other nations by importations and yearned to make of sericulture an industry of his people. Francis I of France brought mulberry trees and silkworms to the valley of the Rhone and there fostered the imported culture. But his venture could not last, and Lyons silk developed under imported raw material.
Under Louis XIV, Colbert with his widespread efficiency made the same experiment, but that also failed. Italy and the East still supplied cocoons and thread, as they do now.
England under James I made her experiment with mulberries and worms, but the climate killed the endeavor. Although failing in sericulture England was rich in weavers, and came to a high place in the manufacture of silk. In 1697 the importation of French silks was prohibited and in 1701 those from China, India and Persia.
Weavers seemed the special marks for the arrows of misfortune and the frequent edicts of thrones drove them from one part of Europe to another. Thus they came to England. In 1585 the Spanish who ruled the fate of the Low Countries so persecuted the able Protestant weavers of that district that they fled to the more peaceable England. Add to this in 1685 the in-flux of French weavers who fled from the persecutions let loose by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and England was magnificently equipped with weavers of silk.
The establishment of Spitalfields grew to occupy the first place in Europe, as Lyons declined by reasons of the flight of the weavers from religious persecution. French ability in silk weaving, French art in design were thus transplanted across the channel. Spitalfields workers like the weavers of Lyons had their looms at home. The masters supplied them with materials and designs, they delivered the textile all ready for use.
One great and primary difference between the silks woven of early Eastern design and those of Europe in the high days of Lyons and Spitalfields is that the Oriental relied for effect on the nobility of his design, which he expressed in few weaves while the European looked to compel admiration by the variety and intricacy of his weaves, letting the design take secondary place. In the Eighteenth Century the displaying of craftsmanship was the first consideration. This is the secret of the charm which resides in those old silks of Eastern design, that they ever delight the eye and stimulate the spirit, and this is accomplished as in the Sassanian and the Byzantine by adhering to robust forms, noble lines and adapted symbol.
It is not time wasted to pass an hour among frayed and fragile remains of the old silks of , Eastern tradition, for therein is found a clue to some of the modernistic designs composed by the decorators of today. Consciously or unconsciously they incorporate the age-old motives in their newest drawings which thus gain in force and reason.