According to archeological evidence. silk and silk fabric emerged in China at least 5.500 years ago. The cultivation of the silkworm can be traced back to the third century BC. It was said that the demigod Leizu. a legendary figure of prehistoric China. was the first to plant mulberries and raise silkworms.
During the Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256BC). a special administration was set up to manage sericulture (silkworm breeding) and silk production. The famous Silk Road to the Middle East and Europe started under Zhang Qian. Under imperial order. he started his diplomatic mission to the West from 138 BC to 126 BC. Gradually. sericulture and silk production techniques spread to other countries. Chinese silk was highly prized among the wealthy of the ancient Roman Empire. Today. Chinese silk still enjoys its reputation for high quality throughout the world.
The business of raising silkworms and unwinding cocoons is now known as silk culture or sericulture. It takes an average of 25-28 days for a silkworm. which is no bigger than an ant. to grow old enough to spin a cocoon. Next. farmers (usually female) will pick them up and place them one by one onto piles of straws. Then each silkworm. with its legs stretched out. will attach itself to the straw and begin to spin.
The next step is unwinding the cocoons. a process that is usually done by ``reeling`` women. The cocoons are heated to kill the pupae. which must be done at the right time; otherwise. the pupas are bound to turn into moths. (Moths make a hole in the cocoon. an event that makes reeling useless.)
To unwind the cocoons. first they are put into a basin filled with hot water. Then the reeling women find the loose end of the cocoons. and then twist them. Afterwards. the women carry the cocoons to a small wheel for unwinding. At last. two workers measure them into a certain length and twist them into so-called ``raw`` silk. which then are dyed and woven into cloth.
An interesting fact is that about 1.000 meters of can be unwound from one cocoon. while 111 cocoons are needed for a man`s tie. and 630 cocoons are needed for a woman`s blouse.