Since the Yangshao period, 5,000 to 10,000 BC, silk has been prized for its feel, lustre and lightness and for its coolness in summer and warmth in winter. The value of the textile made the rearing of silk worms (sericulture) seem worthwhile, despite its many difficulties.
Silkworms are fed on fresh Mulberry leaves, so their expensive incubation indoors must be timed to coincide exactly with the opening of the trees' buds. This can never have been an easy matter as the Roman, Pliny, writes of the Mulberry tree, 'when it begins to put forth buds it dispatches the business in one night, and that with so much force, that their breaking forth may be evidently heard.'
The trees grow fast and furious, spreading out so that they are always wider than they are tall. They age quickly but when the limbs collapse the tree grows ‘on its knuckles’, sometimes rooting to form a new tree. In Rodmell, East Sussex a grove, apparently of thirty trees, is in fact only one.
Efforts to farm silkworms on a larger scale continued into the early nineteenth century with a little more success, encouraged by the fashion for lightweight gowns and much decoration.
The worms had to be kept in shallow trays, indoors, safe from birds and vermin but the resulting humid conditions could lead to 'pepper disease', which caused them to turn black and to stink. The floor of the shed, or ‘magnanerie’, would be sprinkled with lavender, rosemary, thyme, savory and penny royal, to keep it smelling sweet. The worms were also very sensitive to heavy thundery weather and this would sometimes stop them feeding. This led to superstitious attempts to save them, such as placing iron objects in the shed or carrying a live coal around to waft smoke about and ‘calm’ them. When healthy, they ate vast quantities of foliage and the sound of their munching was likened to that of a monsoon falling on leaves.
When the worms grew restless and showed signs of wanting to make cocoons, stalks (preferably the ‘boughs of the seedstalk of turnip or asparagus') were placed in a fan shape to make a framework on to which they could crawl. Here, each worm secreted silk from two pairs of spinnerets below the mouth, moving its head to and fro around 150,000 times.
The fabric is still used as a luxury textile and is often chosen for wedding dresses. As Oscar de la Renta percipiently observed, 'silk does for the body what diamonds do for the hand'.