Classic antique lamps and quality silk lamp shades go hand in hand. This fascinating fibre, reeled from cocoons spun by silk-producing caterpillars, is known to have been cultivated for more than five thousand years. China produces 65% of the world’s silk and is the major producer, the balance being grown in India, Thailand, Brazil, Korea and Japan. A limited amount is still grown in England and Italy.
*While there was already mention of the raising of silkworms during the Zhou dynasty, (11th century BC), fragments of that precious cloth seem to date back to 1500 BC. According to legend, it was the consort of the mythical Yellow Emperor who had the idea of weaving those valuable threads, which were then being used as strings for musical instruments, in order to make precious cloths.
When silk reached Rome, some time during the 1st century, it was called sericum in Latin, that is, ser cloth, (probably an approximate and distorted phonetic of the Chinese word for silk which is si, where the 'i' is mute), and for the ancient Romans, its value was equal to that of gold.
Silk weaving photographed in China, circa 1890. The precious thread is unravelled from cocoons immersed in hot water and is then wound onto a skein-winder that is operated by a pedal.
Exported silk was either woven or in hanks, for it was forbidden to reveal the secret of silkworm production or send cocoons out of the country. But legend has it that in the 5th century AD, a Chinese princess who had married the King of Khotan - one of the oasis kingdoms along the Silk Road - had hidden some eggs in her head-dress. It seems that the two monks who reached Justinian's court around 550 announcing that they came from the land of Seres and knew how silk was produced, were from Khotan and not from China.
In ancient times, only members of the imperial family and of the court were allowed to wear silk: yellow was the colour destined from the emperor, his first wife and his heir; the other wives wore purple silk as did high-ranking officials, while those of lower rank dressed in red silk.*
Did we mention that silk is environmentally friendly, relying as it does on good animal husbandry and hygiene for control of disease in the caterpillar and the Mulberry leaf.
It has the ability to handle well and possessing natural fire-retardant properties, makes it a safe fabric for soft furnishing applications. Clean silk will not be attacked by moths and is mildew resistant.
The preference of high-end lampshade making, it also feels good. Combine all of this with its refined, luxurious look and almost endless colour selection and it’s not hard to see why silk is the obvious, elegant choice!
Excessive use of water is not involved in its production. The bi-products of cultivating the caterpillar Bombyx Mori make excellent fish food and the bi-products of the conversion of the cocoon fibre into fabric have many additional applications, both industrial and cosmetic.
As its production is labour intensive it feeds and educates many families world-wide and if this isn’t enough, remember that silk, while delicate and light, carries a 200 pound / 90kg soldier on a parachute drop to safety!
So the next time your son or daughter runs in with a shoebox full of mulberry leaves and silkworms, you may marvel at what a little caterpillar can do!
*Excerpt taken from
The stunning photographic reportage of Father Leone Nani presents early twentieth-century China as seen through the lens of an "outsider" who brought to life the people, places and traditions of a lost empire. The sheer quality and quantity of his pictures, the choice of subjects and handling of widely different situations, have reserved Nani the right to be considered a master of black-and-white photography.