Once upon a time, there was a Chinese princess sitting under a Mulberry bush, drinking tea, when a cocoon fell into her cup. As she pulled it out, she noticed a long, thin thread spiraling off of it...
The story of the history of silk is as amazing as the fiber itself. I don't know if this legend is accurate (It comes from a children's book), but it is true that silk comes from the cocoon of a moth caterpillar called The Silk Worm. It is also true that it was originally produced only in China and its source and production was highly secretive. Somehow (legends vary) it was smuggled out of china. If you have read the book Middlesex, you will know about the Mediterranean history with silk. It seems women are always smuggling worms and cocoons for the sake of luxury and commerce.
The Silk Road (the route of commerce between the Mediterranean, Middle East, India and Asia) was responsible for the growth and interchange of the great, ancient cultures. The production of silk is intriguing and novel. While the worm is usually killed before it can become a moth and chew through the threads, there is a type of silk called Peace Silk where the moths are allowed to live. There is some debate about whether it is worth it to let the moths emerge into an unhealthy and short life. The blog True Up has a nice little post about it.
I was never very interested in silk. I thought of it as something that was used in fancy gowns, a luxury only for the wealthy. When I learned more about it, I became very enamored with it. It reminds me of porcelain, another material that I love, in that it is fine and delicate yet stronger, more beautiful, and more enduring than its rougher equivalents.
A thin piece of silk can keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It can be washed (if you don't mind loosing some of the sheen) and is quick drying. This, along with it being very light weight, makes it great for traveling. And, it feels fantastic against one's skin.
From an artist's perspective, it is also wonderful. It absorbs dyes easily, comes in a huge range of formats - from thin fabric to thick yarn for knitting or weaving. Even the cocoons can be dyed, cut and worked into textile artworks.
Silk fabric is most noted for its drape, its feel, and its shimmer. So many great designers and artists use it. From a Chiffon cut on the bias to a thick Dupioni cinched up, it has stood the test of time. Kimonos, saris, evening gowns, and underwear, these are just the beginnings of the things you can make with silk.