Silk Road to Silk Robe
Updated: Feb 11
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
My television’s DVR is perpetually set to Masterpiece Theater. I rarely know what is scheduled and I’m rarely disappointed when I hit “play”. A couple of weeks ago, the new series, “Silk”, started and I’m hooked. Set in London Judicial Chambers, it’s about two rival barristers competing for the prestigious appointment as Queen's Counsel. “Barristers in London Chambers” - leave it to British programming to add panache to “law office”. I’m sure there is more distinction to this and can’t wait to learn more. What I know so far is that only a select and proven few are bestowed the honor of becoming Queen’s Counsel – the road to which is called “taking silk”. That is because the robes awarded Queen’s Counsel are made of silk.
Silk. Finally, a topic about which I know. But why silk robes? From context alone, one would surmise that this textile must be special. But what is silk exactly and why is its cost so precious?
Silk is a natural protein fiber produced by insect larvae cocoons. The most commonly known comes from the mulberry worm. Silk fabric was first produced in ancient China with samples dating back to 3500 BC - where silk robes were reserved for the wear of its Emperors (and the inspiration for Queen’s Counsel?).
Silk eventually became a popular luxury fabric and a favorite among trade merchants. The “Silk Road”, a 4000 mile network of interlinking trade routes, connected the East with Western Asia, the Mediterranean and parts of Africa. Time to dust off your edition of The Travels of Marco Polo.
As the once-secreted skill of China became known, production began in India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Lucca, Italy became a prosperous city through its production, by way of a Genovese trading port, and its innovative idea of spinning gold or silver into the silk fibers.
Attempts at silk-growing failed in England but in the early 17th century, King James I introduced it to the colonies. The industry later blossomed in New Jersey and Connecticut.
This explains what silk is and from where it comes. But why is it so treasured? The answer lies not only in its magnificent beauty but also in its tedious, labor and land intensive commitment.
It takes approximately 650 silkworm cocoons and 100 labor hours to produce enough silk to make one blouse and 110 cocoons to make one tie. So, why go to all this trouble? It’s beautiful like no other textile. The triangular quality of a silk fiber reflects like a prism which creates a pearly sheen. The protein in the fiber silk is close in makeup to human skin thus making it feel luxurious to the touch and also making it feel cool in summer and warm in winter.
Unlike other textiles, silk can take on rich, vibrant colors, depth and luster when dyed. On the downside, each dye lot can vary much more than other fabrics. When using silk in home furnishings, it’s best to get a cutting off the intended bolt before purchasing.
Silk filaments are longer and stronger than any other natural fiber and have natural elasticity allowing it to stretch up to 20%. This elasticity provides "memory" that allows it to spring back into shape after being stretched or crushed. Although it appears delicate, silk has strength and durability – unless confronted with its one natural foe. The sun. Therefore, applications such as window treatments should be designed with care.
The quality and style of silk depends on the type of silkworm, the mulberry leaves it feeds on, the selection of cocoons, the weaving, and the finishing of the textile. Silk is so versatile it can be woven into a sheer fabric, a sturdy carpet, even a parachute – and of course, a judicial robe fit for Queen’s Counsel.
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