Silk is everyone’s favorite luxury fabric, and has been for over 5,000 years, thanks to a humble moth.
No one really knows how or when silk was invented. The story goes that Lei Zu, an empress of China around 6,000 years ago, accidentally dropped the cocoon of a silkworm into her cup of tea. She saw that the cocoon quickly turned into long, smooth strands and decided to try spinning the strands into thread, as you would.
If you don’t believe the legend, you’ll have to guess how on earth someone found out that a particular moth’s caterpillar, which eats only the leaves of the mulberry tree, makes a cocoon that produces fine fibers, and that these can be loosened in hot water and spun into silk. Someone in China had worked it out by around 3000 BC.
The Chinese kept the strange secret of silk-making for centuries, though silk was being exported from China by around 1000 BC. The ancient Romans paid high prices for silk, which they thought grew on trees.
In the 1st century BC, the Chinese silk trade followed an established route, the silk road, all the way from China to the Mediterranean, with a second silk road going south to India. Around 200 BC, the silk secret was out: people found out about it in Korea and gradually the secret spread to the rest of the world.
When it was first invented, the Chinese Emperor and his family were the only ones allowed to wear silk. Similarly, the Roman Emperor Tiberius tried to ban it, but it was just too popular. Silk was so valuable that for a while it was used as currency in China.
Although silkworms aren’t actually worms, we shouldn’t overlook how important the lowly worm is, in spite of looking completely useless.