It’s a luxury that has been sought by emperors and citizens alike – a commodity that connected the world and launched global commerce on an unprecedented scale.
Thousands of years later, our desire for silk is no less intense.
China, the country credited with bringing this seductive material to the world, is still its biggest producer – making some 800,000 tons of the opulent thread each year.
In the remote villages of Zhejiang province, Chinese silk farmers are continuing this ancient tradition.
Keeping tradition alive
The raw material for silk thread is made by larvae that feed off the leaves of mulberry trees, which are plentiful in this region’s mild climate.
Once found in the wild, now the caterpillars – called silkworms – are mostly farmed.
One farmer, 67-year-old Ding Xianquing, has raised silkworms all his life, feeding them several times a day in his one-room farmhouse.
It’s only when you come here that you realize just how much time and effort goes into producing just one piece of silk fabric.
In Xianquing’s farmhouse, around 30,000 silkworms have been feeding on mulberry leaves for the past month. Now they will actually begin spitting out that silk and wrapping themselves into this cocoon – the whole bunch producing around 50kg of cocoon silk.
In ancient China, everything was done by hand. Today, silk is mostly made by machine – but it’s still a labor-intensive process.
Just outside of Hangzhou, Lin Hui – or “Eric,” as he’s known – manages his family-owned silk company, TL Silk.
The factory runs 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, producing nearly 1 million meters of silk each year – selling as far away as the U.S. and Europe.
“Silk is a tradition for Chinese people,” said 28-year-old Eric.
“It’s the essence of our culture.”
Given the time it takes to produce – from cocoon to factory – it’s perhaps no wonder then that silk is still such a luxury today.
See: 9 Instagrams that’ll make you pack for the Silk Road