Chinese legend gives the title "Goddess of Silk to Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih", wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, who was said to have ruled China about 3000 BC. It is said she was sitting under the mulberry tree when a silk worm cocoon fell into her tea. As she removed the cocoon from the tea it began to unravel giving her the idea to weave it. Regardless of the accuracy or truth behind the legend it is a time honored story and gives interest and mystery to this luxurious fiber.
The truth is the earliest silk found was at a site of the Yangshao culture in Xia County, Shanxi. A silk cocoon belonging to the bombyx mori silkworm was found dating back between 4000 and 3000 BCE.
Silk was confined to China beginning in the 27th century BCE. The imperial decree of that time indicated death to anyone attempting to export silkworm or their eggs. The right to wear silk was reserved (for about a millennium) only for the emperor and the highest dignitaries. Lower class citizens were not allowed to wear silk until the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911). One of the greatest discoveries in ancient China was the development of paper. A variety of material was used in making paper such as, linen, bamboo, straw and of course silk. The earliest silk paper discovered was in the tomb of Marchioness who died in 168 in Mawangdui, Hunan.
It wasn't until the Silk Road opened in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) did silk move outside the China boarders. Around 300 CE Japan began to produce silk after acquiring silkworm eggs and capturing four Chinese girls forcing them to teach them the art of silk cultivation and weaving. In 522 the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent two monks to Central Asia who smuggled out silkworm eggs in attempt to create their own silk. It wasn't until the Crusades that silk production entered Western Europe. Over time the export of silk from China became less important.
Industrial Revolution brought about the biggest change in the silk industry in Europe. Cotton became a dominate force because it was much cheaper to manufacture. The production of silk declined in 1845 when several disease epidemics that attacked the silkworm. During WWII silk supplied by Japan was cut off. The need for a new sturdy fiber was in demand. Nylon was developed as a replacement. It was used in parachutes for the military and stockings for women who could no longer afford the price of silk. Though silk never made the come back the industry hoped for, China once again took back its reign as the leading silk producer in the 20th century making silk a rare and luxurious fabric once again.