Sericulture (the culture of the silkworm) and the weaving of silk have been practiced in China from a remote period. Legend dates this back to 2640 B.C., to Empress Si Ling-chi, who not only encouraged the culture of the silkworm but also developed the process of reeling from the cocoon. This was a closely guarded secret for some 3,000 years. Silk seems to have been woven very early on the island of Kós, which Aristotle mentions, in a vague description of the silkworm, as the place where silk was "first spun," In the 1st and 2d cent. A.D. silk fabrics imported to Greece and Rome were sold for fabulous prices.
Up to the 6th cent. raw silk was brought from China, but death was the penalty for exporting silkworm eggs. About A.D. 550 two former missionaries to China, incited by Emperor Justinian, succeeded (says Procopius) in smuggling to Constantinople, in a hollow staff, both the eggs of the silkworm and the seeds of the mulberry tree. Byzantium became famous for splendid silken textiles and embroideries, used throughout medieval Europe for royal and ecclesiastical costumes and furnishings. In the 8th cent. the Moors began to carry the arts of silk culture and weaving across the northern coast of Africa and to Spain and Sicily, and in the 12th cent. Spain and Sicily were weaving silks of exquisite texture and design.
Other areas of Europe subsequently became great weaving centers. Lucca, in N Italy, had established looms by the 13th cent., and in the 14th cent. the city became famous for its materials and designs. Florence and Venice followed and wove sumptuous fabrics and velvets enriched with gold thread. Genoa's velvets became well known. France established looms, and under Louis XIV's minister Jean Baptiste Colbert it set the fashion with its beautiful silks. Lyons in S France became an important weaving center. Early attempts were made in England under Henry VI to establish the silk industry, but it was not until the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, when many French refugee weavers fled to England, that the industry received a real impetus. The French settled in Canterbury, Norwich, and other places; but it was in Spitalfields, London, that the industry became important.
Many attempts were made to establish sericulture in the American colonies: inducements such as land grants and bounties were offered, and many mulberry trees were planted. In 1759 Georgia sold more than 10,000 lb (4,535 kg) of cocoons in London. Pennsylvania had a silk industry, fostered by Benjamin Franklin, until the Revolution. The high cost of labor seems to have been the main deterrent to the success of sericulture in America.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.