The Lady and the Cocoon
From mulberry leaf and silkworm to bolts of chiffon and spools of thread, every piece of silk follows an incredible journey. In Threads no. 153, Maggie Backman, the owner of Things Japanese and a longtime importer of Japanese silk thread, shared her extensive knowledge of silk’s history. According to Maggie, silk fibers have been traced as far back as 22,500 B.C.
But nothing about silk is prosaic. While we were working on Maggie’s story, “Silk Thread Demystified,” Maggie shared with me the popular legend that attributes the discovery of silk’s secrets to one Lady Xi Ling.
Lady Xi Ling (there are many spelling variations of her name, including Si Ling Chi, Lei-tzu and Hsi-ling-shi, but the essentials of the legend are the same) was the principle wife of Emperor Shin Huang-Ti (259-210 B.C.). As the story goes, the beautiful Lady Xi Ling was strolling through the palace gardens one day with her female courtiers. They stopped to make tea under a spreading mulberry bush. As the water heated over a small brazier, a silkworm cocoon fell from the tree into the bowl.
Carefully, Lady Xi Ling used a chop stick to remove the cocoon from the hot water. As she did so, she noticed a strand delicately reeling off of the silkworm cocoon. Lady Xi Ling marveled at the long, lustrous filament and wondered if it could be woven into a fabric for a special gown for herself.
Because of this popular legend, Lady Xi Ling was given the honored name “The Lady of the Silkworms” and credited with the discovery of silk.
Maggie enjoys sharing this legend of silk. She says that certainly, portions of this romantic narrative have a factual basis. The mulberry tree is the natural food for a variety of silkworms. Mulberry branches would have been the chosen place for cocoon production. And silk cocoons do require hot water to soften the fibers for future processing.
However, with the advent of recent historical research and archeological finds it has been scientifically proven that Chinese cocoon rearing (sericulture), cocoon reeling/processing, and silk weaving was in practice centuries before the rule of the Emperor Shin Huang-Ti. Though we’ll never know precisely who discovered silk (and how he or she did it), it’s fun to imagine the emperor’s astute and fashion-forward wife, Lady Xi Ling, and her tea-time discovery.