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Silk, a legendary origin for a noble material!

The best kept secret of Antiquity, silk and its production were the source of all desires.

For several centuries, the entire world seemed subject to the powerful Chinese Empire which held a monopoly on silk production techniques.


But then, how did this precious, soft yet strong fiber get to us?

Furthermore, how did the historic cities of Lyon and Como become central European capitals of silk production?

 

To try to answer these questions, let's focus on three key geographic areas:

Imperial China, the Como region, in Italy, and the city of Lyon, in France.


 

An asian origin...

The history of silk and its legend go hand in hand. Almost intrinsically linked, they reveal the way in which luck sometimes does things well. In order to begin our return to the past, let us recontextualise.


Chine, 2600 av. J.-C, à l'ombre d'un mûrier, l'Impératrice Xi Ling-Shi, épouse de l'Empereur Huang Di (l'Empereur Jaune) sirote un thé quand, soudain, une masse étrange tombe dans sa tasse. Un cocon contenant un ver ; un Bombyx Mori pour être exact. Étonnée, elle ne le sauve pas d'une noyade assurée mais décide d'observer la structure qui semble se délier dans l'eau. Après quelques instants, un fil indépendant jailli de la paroi blanche. Elle tire dessus. Son étonnement ne fait qu'augmenter lorsqu'elle constate qu'en dévidant ce cocon, un fin fil doux, brillant et incroyablement robuste se délie. Une fibre... Une fibre de soie.


China, 2600 BC, in the shade of a mulberry tree, Empress Xi Ling-Shi, wife of Emperor Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor) is sipping tea when, suddenly, a strange mass falls into her cup. A cocoon containing a worm; a Bombyx Mori to be exact. Surprised, she does not save him from drowning but decides to observe the structure which seems to be unraveling in the water. After a few moments, an independent filament emerges from the white wall. She pulls on it. Her astonishment only increases when she notices that by unwinding this cocoon, a fine, soft, shiny and incredibly strong thread comes untied. A fiber... A silk fiber.


What follows is only the beginning of a secret jealously guarded for nearly three millennia by the Chinese Empire.


Carrés de soie Roseline d'Oreye
The Dragon Dress - yellow silk imperial dress worn by Chinese then Korean Emperors.

Extremely rare, silk was then reserved for the Kingdom's elite. Subsequently, the practice quickly spread with the mechanization of techniques. Thus, different social classes were allowed to wear silk. However, certain patterns, accessories and colors were specific to social statuses. Yellow, for example, was reserved for the Emperor, while different military hierarchies already wore squares of silk on their heads to distinguish themselves from each other.



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Silk weaving women in ancient China


Silk production was a job entrusted only to Chinese women. Officials were, however, hired to monitor the production and use of the material.


A real economic and political issue, silk quickly became the most precious commodity that the Chinese Empire had to offer. Customs officers were also stationed at exits from the Kingdom to ensure that no smuggling occurred and that no silkworms left the territory. The penalties for those who risked it were terrible, ranging from amputation to the death penalty.


 

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Justinian the Great (last great Roman emperor), 527-565 AC

A secret soon to be revealed...

Although the rest of the world was completely unaware of how silk was made, the almost religiously hidden secret could not remain hidden forever. The Chinese monopoly ended in the 6th century when Justinian I or Justinian the Great (considered the last great Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire) sent two monks on a mission to hide mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs in their pilgrim's sticks, thus repatriating the tree and its worm to the edge of the Mediterranean, and more precisely to Constantinople, today's city of Istanbul.


From there, the mulberry tree first invaded Greece and the Peloponnese region, giving it its new name, Morea - name of the mulberry tree. However, 500 years later, in the 1100s, Roger II of Sicily invaded the region, attacking the cities of Corinth and Thebes and plundering them. He then deported the Greek workers to Palermo and Calabria. Italian production thus got off to a flying start, spreading to several cities and regions, notably Naples and Lombardy.



One story, two locations...

In Europe, two silk production centers are developing simultaneously. Como and Lyon are gradually becoming European capitals of silk. The reason for their respective growth is similar, because their location is the result of geographical, economic and political stakes.



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Lombard countryside

On the one side, there is Como...

In Lombardy, the manufacture of textiles is not recent. Numerous archaeological finds have shown us that fabrics, tools and rock engravings made the Como region a high place in the art of weaving development since prehistoric times. Today known for its ancestral production of silk, the city had been - since the 13th century - renowned for its wool fabrics. However, from the 1400s, a new material, nobler, softer, began its great journey - silk.




Indeed, the Silk Road linked various cultures from East to West. Como being one of the "terminuses" of the West, the city discovered this brilliant new fiber and production quickly got underway. But it was not until the 18th century and the reign of Maria Theresa of Austria (who notably owned Milan) that silk production took off again. Indeed, the duchess developed sericulture and concentrated its manufacturing in the Lombardy countryside. An ideal environment, Como, its lake and its surroundings represented vast agricultural areas irrigated by numerous rivers. The climate and abundant water were conducive to the good development of this new technique which requires an immense quantity. In addition, labor was plentiful and cheap. The development of industry was thus a good opportunity for farmers to leave the fields for less back-breaking work.


With the Industrial Revolution, techniques were perfected and the pace accelerated to increase output. The great Lombard families then competed for factories and machinery. For the record, the best paid and most recognized job in the production chain was the dyer. Thus, it was customary to display one's tinted hands as a symbol of prosperity but also in order to find a bride. In addition, the water areas around the factories were nicknamed "the rivers of fashion" because of the vats of dye that were dumped into them. The color the water took on revealed the trend of the moment. Quickly, hundreds of silk workshops emerged and concentrated thousands of artisans and expert weavers. Although industrialization accelerated the manufacturing process, life in the spinning mills was harsh and exhausting. The workers were mainly women and girls who spent their entire days with their hands immersed in boiling water, in order to provide high quality thread. These habits often resulted in injuries and painful skin reactions.


Today, and despite competition from Indian and Chinese giants, Como still holds 80% of silk production in Europe, 95% of silk production in Italy and is considered a reference in terms of quality in silk weaving. This prestige is largely due to the quality of execution which retains the precision of tradition, even in our modern times. However, the city does not stop at silk and continues to develop its crafts with other types of textiles. This is why Como is also recognized as a famous producer of refined fabrics such as satin, organza, and muslin.



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Silk merchants in Lyon

...on the other, there is Lyon.

The French city also represents an essential place in terms of European sericulture since the Renaissance. Indeed, since 1419, Lyon had been a city of commercial exchange. Its numerous markets and fairs helped make the city a renowned economic center within the Kingdom. However, silk production has not always been from Lyon. In reality, in 1466, Louis XI (King of France) was aggravated by the enormous amount of money spent on the importation of Italian silk. He wanted to create a national production which would considerably reduce import costs. At the time, he proposed choosing the city of Lyon, but the decision was unfortunately contested by its inhabitants. He therefore decided to move production to Tours - manufacturing which will remain relatively marginal. Subsequently, his son Charles VII, claiming vague family rights over the Kingdom of Naples, set out to conquer it and emerged victorious - rediscovering the "golden tree" (mulberry tree). The French then repatriated a few plants from Naples which they installed in Provence, particularly near Montélimar. It was only in 1540 that a certain François I (king of France) granted the monopoly on silk production to the city of Lyon, due to its strategic location. Indeed, the city is located close to Italy which remains the main supplier of silkworms.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Lyon silk industry reached its peak. With the mechanization of techniques, the practice became the main economic wealth of the city, concentrating no less than 28,000 employees and weaving workers (the Canuts). Moreover, at that time, silk was the fashionable fabric. From Madame de Pompadour to Louis XV, demand exploded. The style of Lyon silk established itself as a standard of quality and patterns. Production even survived the French Revolution, taking advantage of the Imperial Regime under Napoleon I.


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The Canuts revolt, 1831

Although flourishing, Lyon's industry experienced a dark period in the 19th century. The Canuts, weaver workers, are revolting because of increasingly precarious pay and working conditions. It was by displaying flags on which one could read: "Bread or death!" that in 1831, the protesters seized the Croix-Rousse, a key district for Lyon's silk production. A general strike then broke out when the army recovered the city. The revolt was finally brought under control after 6 days and at the sacrifice of 300 dead, a multitude of injured and more than 500 arrests.


During the same century, silk regained its popularity, thanks to the appearance of Haute Couture. However, this new notoriety did not last long, since the economic crisis of the 1930s considerably weakened the demand for Lyon silk. Today, only a handful of small artisans perpetuate the tradition and ancestral savoir-faire - some still located on the slopes of Croix-Rousse. Among the latter, we find in particular Tassinari & Chatel, a royal producer already renowned at the time of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI.


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19th century Chinoiserie cabinet

An everlasting Chinese influence...

Although over the centuries Europe has appropriated silk production techniques, Chinese influence has never really disappeared. During the Ming and Qing dynasties (which spanned from the 14th to the 20th centuries), the silk industry continued to evolve. The production workshops were now no longer only federal, but private. This allowed for an increase in the diversity of patterns and weaving techniques in terms of satin, silk and velvet. With the evolution and expansion of maritime transport between China and the West, a historic quantity of Chinese silk products was sent to Europe, leading to the "Chinoiserie" movement in the 18th and 19th centuries.


 

A story of enthusiasts above all...

Through our journey around the world and time, we were able to gain insight into how silk – its origin, its legend and its route – has been passed down from generations to generations and from cultures to societies. Doesn't its incredible journey ultimately retrace the journey of Humanity?...

From Prehistory to Ancient China, to the shores of the Mediterranean, isn't the history of silk a story of curious explorers, in search of quality, savoir-faire and beauty? The age-old craze surrounding this noble material also shows us to what extent luxury and its manufacture are intrinsically linked to the simple condition of being Human. By perfecting skills and knowledge, could human beings' attraction to luxury be a way of transcending materiality to get closer to spirituality? ...

Thus, even today, the shine and softness of silk excite, fascinate and enchant a large number of aesthetes who, like men and women centuries before, wish to perpetuate this value of excellence.

And we are fortunate today that respect for human values ​​is increasingly combined with a product quality approach.


 

A poetic touch...

To end our beautiful journey through the centuries and the history of silk, let's watch this poetic and magical nugget from Paul Grimault, French illustrator. This short advertisement film, produced in 1951, was created to promote the silk union in France. The story goes that the daughter of a king, traveling in Asia, brings back two silk butterflies for her sisters; thus introducing silk into the kingdom.

Enjoy!



 

At Roseline d'Oreye, strong in this historical heritage to which we pay real attention and sincere respect, we seek to perpetuate this thousand-year-old heritage by renewing it through our creativity, our enthusiasm and the freedom of our patterns, enriched by vibrant colours that can be produced today.


This article will probably have made you understand why we chose to get our silk in Como. Indeed, the guarantee of quality and Italian savoir-faire are no longer in doubt. In addition, the responsible management of the quantities produced by our Lombard suppliers gives us the luxury of being able to offer you a slow fashion approach which fully corresponds to our vision of long-lasting, exclusive and timeless products.


Should we remind you that you can find our silk accessories on our online store or in the enchanting Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (Galerie du Roi 10) for an even more personalized experience?


While waiting for the joy of seeing you again or meeting you, here is a selection of our current bestsellers:



From left to right:

- "Le Printemps des Magnolias" (90x90cm silk scarf), - Summer garden - Laying in tall grass" (90x90cm silk scarf), - "Les Fleurs des Saisons - Printemps" (120x120cm silk scarf), - "Carnet de Toscane - La Dolce Vita" (90x90cm silk scarf)



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