EP 009: The Silk Ode

What do you get when you cross a mulberry leaf with a flying horse? In this episode we're answering that very question, diving into whether silkworms can build skyscrapers, and telling stories about a fabric that changed the world.

I’m really hoping somebody will write in and make me feel a bit less alone here, but for many years, I thought satin was silk. In fact, I spent most of my childhood believing that. But, as probably everyone in the world except me knows, silk is NOT satin, and its dead useful. You’ve probably encountered it in linen or clothing, but it was also used to make parachutes, bicycle tires, gunpowder bags, and even, for a while, paper.

You might have heard rumours that silk is stronger than steel. If you’re really married to that idea, let your mind wander for a few minutes so we don’t stuff up your Tuesday morning. It’s true to a certain degree – when you look at tensile strength, which is basically the amount of stress a material can endure before snapping, silk scores really high. In terms of its strength to density ratio, it is way stronger than steel. But tensile strength is only one measure of how strong something is, so, for example, you probably want to stick with steel for building skyscrapers. But today, we’re going to talk about silk the fabric, not just the thread itself.

This fabric, as far as we know, originated in China. Exactly when is a bit contentious, but probably between 3000 and 4000 BCE. One of the earliest bits of evidence of actual woven silk fabric comes from about 3630BCE. You needn’t bother about the dates – the point is that it’s flipping old.

Because its that old, and because it had such a profound impact on Chinese culture in so many ways, there are dozens of legends about the first discovery of this incredible fabric. There are also dozens of far more prosaic explanations, mainly involving clever people doing clever things. But the legends are much more exciting so we’re going to talk about those.

Now just before we put the cart on the wrong side of the horse, I’m just going to remind you all that the silk thread is made by silk worms. They live for a few days and then they turn into grumpy adolescents. They don’t have doors to slam shut so they spin themselves into cocoons and tell everyone else to bugger off. What they do next we’ll leave for another person on another podcast, but the cocoon is the bit that unravels into this incredibly strong, versatile thread. If you’re imagining a pillow-y white marshmallow, I’m afraid you’ve only got one out of three. They are sort of white sometimes, but they can also be quite yellow. And they’re very hard, so there’s nothing marshmallow-y about them, unless you’re imagining those very stale marshmallow fish you used to be able to buy at the garage at 3am after a night out.

 Now as much as I love them, and it’s a lot, I’m not just looking for ways to sneak marshmallow fish into this podcast. The hard shell of the cocoon is actually central to two of three legends we’re going to talk about today. The third one, not so much, but that one also involves an interspecies marriage and a magic horse.

So for the first legend, we go back to the time of the Empress Leizu, who fancied a cup of tea. It was hot and stuffy inside the palace, and presumably quite noisy. So she told her servants to set up her tea table outside, because that’s the sort of whimsy you can indulge when you’re the Empress of China. They picked a nice shady spot, but unfortunately they forgot to look up. Just as she was sipping her cuppa and thinking what a nice day it was, something plopped down into the hot liquid. She knows the rules about unattended drinks, so she peers in to have a look, and there’s a cocoon floating around in her cup. She tries to fish it out, but the hot tea has softened the threads and it’s started to unravel. When she sees how long and fine and strong the thread is, she decides to weave it into fabric for her husband, the emperor. She sets her ladies to work, picking the cocoons and unravelling, while she sits down to weave. One imagines that a great many cups of tea were ruined during this process. Eventually they finish, and the silky fabric is the silkiest, softest, finest thing the Emperor has ever seen. In classic Emperor style, he decides he’s never going to wear anything other than silk ever again, at which point his wife probably seriously regrets ever having bothered in the first place. She starts instructing her entourage in the secrets of silk production, probably sensing that if she doesn’t she’ll never get another free minute for that quiet cup of tea.

Another legend has a group of Chinese women out picking berries. They saw some interestingly shaped white fruit hanging from the branches of several of the trees, and picked them, thinking – no doubt – that they would liven up their morning parfait. Unfortunately they discovered that this fruit was far too hard to bite into, or even to cut open. Being sensible folk, they chucked the fruit into boiling water, thinking to cook and soften them. When they tried again however, they could still barely eat them, so they lost all patience and starting beating them with sticks. This broke the cocoons apart, revealing the silky fibers and the much-abused and, by now, par-cooked worms inside.

A third legend is far less prosaic and, depending on how you feel about horses, far more romantic.

In a sleepy town in ancient China, lived a man, his daughter, and his horse. This was no ordinary horse though – it was a magic horse. It could understand human language and it could fly. If you’ve ever been on a horse, near a horse, or needed to get somewhere really quickly, you’ll know why these are good qualities. So naturally they were all very fond of the horse. One day, the father headed out to another town on business, and didn’t come back. For reasons not completely clear to us, he didn’t take the horse, which seems to sort of defeat the point of having a magic horse, but never mind. His daughter worried and cried and worried a bit more, and eventually decided that the time had come for serious action. So she strikes a deal with the horse: if he goes out and finds her father and brings him back home, she’ll marry him. That’s him, the horse; not him, the father. Grammar is important, although frankly, in this case, I’m not sure it makes it any less strange.

Anyway, this challenge isn’t much for the horse, who duly returns with Dad in tow. Unfortunately for the horse, prophesy doesn’t seem to be one of his magical abilities. The father – horrified by what his daughter has done, and unwilling to let her become the laughing stock of the town – kills the magical horse. To really hammer the nail into the metaphorical coffin, he skins it, and hangs the horse hide out to dry. If he was hoping it might retain some useful magical properties – he was right. The hide sprang up, wrapped itself around its fiancée, and flew off into the night. When they landed in the branches of mulberry tree, the girl was transformed into a silkworm, where she remained forever spinning silky thread and mourning. Whether she mourns for her father, or her horse, or both, I’ll let you decide.

So there you go, three of many of the old legends about how silk came into existence. Of course, we’ll probably never know the whole truth, but what we do know is that silk was kept an imperial secret for about 3000 years. You could be sentenced to death just for chatting to a foreigner about how it was made.

Another legend has it that the beans were finally spilled when a Chinese princess was promised in marriage to one of the prince’s of Khotan. She, apparently, was persuaded to go off to face the rest of her life with this man she’d never met, in a place she’d never seen, but flat out refused to wear anything other than her beloved silk. the Imperial family, realizing that sentencing her to the death penalty would probably lower her attractiveness as a bride, allowed her to break the ban on exporting silk. The prince got his wife, She got her silky sheets, and the rest of the world got silk, which led on to an exchange not just of merchandise, but of knowledge and beliefs and culture. But that is a story for another day.

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