What is silk and where does it come from

What is silk and where does it come from


The decision to be a more responsible and aware consumer has to start somewhere.

I’ve decided to look into the fabrics that I reach most often for, especially after my last embarrassing realisation – which can be read here.

To start off my journey, I’ll begin by exploring what makes up the silk fabric and its origin.

Where it comes from.

How it is made.

What is silk

A fabric made from natural protein fibres, produced by some insect larvae to form cocoons.

Legend of silk and its origin

What is silk and where does it come from


A long, long time ago, in a – sorry couldn’t help it. It was a long time ago, however, sometime in 3000 – 2600 BC.

A Chinese Empress, Leizu was having tea when a silk worm’s cocoon fell into her teacup. The heat caused the cocoon to unravel, revealing fine strands thread. Fishing it out of the tea cup, the Empress continued unwinding the fine strands, marvelling at its soft, delicate yet strong and elastic nature.

That was the fairytale-like discovery of silk.

Now the scientifically based version

History of silk

What is silk and where does it come from
Not the actual historical silk cocoon, but you get what I mean

In China, Shanxi, the earliest evidence of silk was discovered. A silk cocoon, cut into half by a sharp knife, dating back to 4000 – 3000 BC. Silk fabric dating back to the same time period was found as well, wrapped around the body of a child. Similar silk fragments were discovered from royal tombs, dating back to the Shang dynasty, 1600 – 1000 BC.

Myth, legend or history, it is clear that silk and silk production originated from China.

But where does silk actually come from, would any silk cocoon do?

Where does silk come from

Silk is actually produced by many types of insects – silkworms, raspy crickets, honey and bumblebees, spiders, wasps, bulldog ants and weaver ants. Silk that is spun into thread to make textiles and garments however, are gathered specifically from the cocoon of the silkworm.

Silkworms, surprise! Aren’t worms.

Silkworms when fully grown are moths, specifically Bombyx mori – the domestic silk moth. The Bombyx mori silkworms are most commonly reared silkworms, for silk production. The process of cultivating silk worms and farming the silk is also known as sericulture.

Sericulture, the process.

A short and super condensed version, if you may call it as such.

Female silk moths, lay up to 500 eggs. These eggs hatch to form silk worms.

Lets look at the domesticated silkworms (Bombyx species) on mulberry leaves!

What is silk and where does it come from
munch munch munch, isn’t it cute!

The Bombyx Mori caterpillars eats the leaves of the mulberry tree, in massive amounts. This specific diet enables them to produce the sought-after silk fibres. They will munch and munch continuously for 5 weeks, growing to their full size of approximately 3 inches.

Then they stop and look at the world. I’m serious, they stop and raise their heads.

What is silk and where does it come from
Look! it does raise its head!

A sign that they are ready to spin their silk cocoons.

Anchoring itself to a sturdy surface, the silkworm begins spinning its silk cocoon. The process takes anywhere from 3 to 8 days. A long single fine strand of silk easily up to 1000 meters long, makes up the entire cocoon. Sericin, a natural gum, produced by the silkworm, holds the cocoon together.

What is silk and where does it come from

Thread Extraction

These silk cocoons, encases the silkworms within. In nature, a moth hatches between 7-14 days.

Alas! Not in the silk production process.

What is silk and where does it come from
Silk cocoons in a hot bath

The silk cocoons are placed into hot water, to soften the gum holding it together. Slowly, the cocoon will unwind to a single long silk thread. Individual silk threads are then wound on a reel.

The poor silkworm within?

Well, it’s life ends there.


After it’s washed, the silk threads are bleached and dried before it is dyed into the desired colour.

Traditionally, silk dyeing relies on natural colouring, usually derived from fruit, flowers or plant leaves. The silk threads are bundled, put in a tub, soaked in a mixture of hot water and the natural dye (fruit, flower or plant leaves). This process is repeated multiple times over several days to produce a rich colour tone that’s lasting.

Today, post industrialisation, the commercial manufacturing and dyeing process of silk is quite different. Instead of using nature’s dye, various dyes such as acid dyes or reactive dyes are preferred. It is faster, with a wide range of choice in colours in various shades. Some of these colours were not available with the traditional dyeing method.

What is silk and where does it come from

Colours like neon green or magenta pink. I don’t think those were available in the past. I can’t think of where in nature would these colours be extracted from!

Some things change, others don’t. The dyeing technique has remained largely unchanged. The silk is still soaked in a dye bath to obtain the desired shade of colour.

Oh wait, there’s been change!

In the past, silk threads were dyed.

Today, the silk threads are mostly kept pristine, and the completed piece of fabric dyed instead.


It is much easier to dye pieces or bolts of silk fabric into the desired shade requested.

Dye it, dry it, sell it.

If silk threads were all pre-dyed, with today’s vast shades of colours, imagine the trouble to store the coloured silk threads.


Silk threads are just the raw materials of the silk fabric.

The threads are spun and weaved to create the silk fabric.

Of course, there are many ways silk can be woven, different techniques.

The most common being satin weave, plain weave and open weave. Of course, there’s also the sought-after charmeuse weave. Each weave gives rise to different characters of the silk textile.

The final step would be to apply different chemical treatments to treat and finish the silk fabric. These treatments could be to reduce creasing of the silk, or to include fire resistance. Whatever the property, finishing usually gives silk that highly luxurious and lustrous sheen.

Why silk?

Why not silk?

I mean, besides the sad thought of the silk worms being sacrificed.

Makes me wonder, is it possible to obtain silk without the deaths of silkworms? Curious thought.

But wait, I’m digressing.

The properties of silk, the appearance of silk, are impressive to say the least. A quick look shall we?

Properties of silk

Depending on its momme count, silk das a variety of appearances and properties. Its versatile nature makes it a popular textile in couture and high-end fashion.

How versatile you may ask?

It may be sheer, translucent and floaty, like in the case of gauze silk. It may also be weighty and opaque like charmeuse silk. But does it matter if its sheer or opaque? Isn’t it still so soft, so elegant, the epitome of luxury.

But, why silk?

What is silk and where does it come from

Still not convinced? Visualise cotton sleepwear, hmm comfy and fuss free. Now visualise silk sleepwear. I don’t know about you, but to me it says self-love, self-care, decadence and a splurge.

Each silk item, clothing or accessory, is a carefully thought-out investment piece. They are essentially gifts to myself. I still love my oversized cotton tees, but if I wanted to pamper myself silk it always is.


If you disagree and prefer cotton tees or go au naturel, you do you!