The origins of silk date back thousands of years to Ancient China. Legend has it, nearly 5,000 years ago a Chinese princess was sipping tea in her garden when a worm's cocoon fell into her cup. The hot tea loosened the cocoon into a long strand of silk. Around 2600 B.C., Chinese Empress Si-Ling, also called the Goddess of the Silkworm, raised silkworms and designed a custom loom for making silk fabrics.
Silk quickly became a central part of the Chinese economy and an important means of exchange for trading with neighboring countries. Caravans traded the prized silk fabrics along the famed Silk Road into the Near East. By the fourth century B.C. , Alexander the Great is said to have introduced silk to Europe. The popularity of silk was influenced by Christian prelates who donned the rich fabrics and adorned their altars with them. Gradually, nobility began to request that their own clothing be fashioned from silk fabrics as well.
Initially, the Chinese were highly protective of their secret to making silk. Indeed, the reigning powers decreed death by torture to anyone who divulged the secret of the silk-worm. Eventually, the mystery of the silk-making process was smuggled into neighboring regions, reaching Japan about A.D. 300 and India around A.D. 400. By the eighth century, Spain began producing silk, and 400 years later Italy became quite successful at making silk, with several towns giving their names to particular types of silk.
Silk is highly valued because it possesses many excellent properties. Not only does it look lustrous and feel luxurious, but it is also lightweight, resilient, and extremely strong—one filament of silk is stronger than a comparable filament of steel. Although fabric manufacturers have created less costly alternatives to silk, such as nylon and polyester, silk remains still in a class by itself.