The setting: a royal garden of the Yellow Emperor, circa 2700 B.C.
According to Chinese legend, the history of silk begins about 5,000 years ago in the garden of Emperor Huang-Ti, after he sent his wife Hsi-Ling-Shi to investigate what was eating the leaves on his mulberry trees.
The Empress ventured out, a hot cup of tea in hand, and discovered little white worms spinning shining cocoons. Upon further inspection, she accidentally dropped one of the cocoons into her tea cup, causing it to unravel into a delicate filament. She drew it out, unwinding the long single strand to cover the entire length of the garden.
Hsi-Ling-Shi had discovered silk.
The following day she convinced the Emperor to give her a grove of mulberry trees, where she could cultivate the cocoons. Hsi-Ling-Shi also is credited in Chinese lore with inventing the silk reeling process.
No one knows if this is the true story of silk’s discovery, but history is clear that the Chinese were first to find and manufacture silk fabrics. The Chinese closely guarded how silk was produced for many, many years. In fact, for about 3000 years, only the Chinese knew the origin of the prized fabric, making it a scarcely available and highly treasured commodity on ancient trade routes, referred to as The Silk Road.
Long before planes, trains, and automobiles (around 206 B.C. to be exact) people relayed thousands of miles on foot to get their hands on bolts of valuable, exotic silk fabrics.
Silk, though not the only prized good to traverse the mountainous desert regions leading from northern Asia to the Roman Empire, was the most lucrative, as the East kept the secrets of silk rearing.
Ancient European demand for silk was so high, the first intercontinental system of elaborate trade routes was coined “The Silk Road” by a German geographer in 1877. And not only did fabric, fruits, spices, glass, art and gold make the 5000 mile trek, so too did ideas and culture.
With silk as the catalyst, an international market developed and flourished, and the wonder of exploration became a true profession.