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fine, horny, translucent, yellowish fiber produced by the silkworm in making its cocoon and covered with sericin, a protein. Many varieties of silk-spinning worms and insects are known, but the silkworm of commerce is the larva of the Bombyx mori, or mulberry silkworm, and other closely related moths. Wild silk is the product of the tussah worm of India and China, which feeds on oaks. It is now semicultivated, as groves of dwarf trees are provided for its feeding. It spins a coarser, flatter, yellower filament than the Bombyx mori, and the color does not boil out with the gum. Tussah silk is a rough, durable, washable fabric known as shantung or pongee.

Silk Manufacturing

In silk manufacture, the first operation is reeling. The cocoons, having been sorted for color and texture, are steamed or placed in warm water to soften the natural gum. They are then unwound; each cocoon may give from 2,000 to 3,000 ft (610–915 m) of filament, from 4 to 18 strands of which are reeled or twisted together to make an even thread strong enough to handle. This is called raw silk. Formerly a hand process, this work is now done in Europe and in some parts of the Orient in factories on simple machines called filatures.

The next step, called throwing, is preparing the raw silk for the loom by twisting and doubling it to the required strength and thickness. This process also is now mostly done in large mills with specialized machinery. Silk, after throwing, has three forms—singles, which are untwisted, used for the warp of very delicate fabrics; tram, two or more singles, twisted and doubled, used for the weft of various fabrics; and organzine, made of singles twisted one way, then doubled and twisted in the opposite direction, used for the warp of heavy fabrics. For sewing and embroidery thread, more doubles and smoother twists are made. In modern factories spinning frames complete the preparation for the loom.

The silk is boiled off in soapsuds to remove gum and prepare it for dyeing. For white and pale tints it must be bleached. Scouring or boiling causes loss of weight, sometimes made up by loading with metallic salts, as tin, which has an affinity for silk and can be absorbed to excess, causing weakening of the fiber. Dyeing may be done in the yarn or in the piece. Finishing processes are varying and important, as in making moires. Weavingweaving,
the art of forming a fabric by interlacing at right angles two or more sets of yarn or other material. It is one of the most ancient fundamental arts, as indicated by archaeological evidence.
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 is done as with other textiles, but on more delicate and specialized looms.

Types of Fabrics

Fabrics made are plain weaves (taffeta, pongee), cords (faille, poplin), gauzes (net malines), pile fabrics (plush, velvet), crepes, satins, damask, ribbons, and brocade. Some of these weaves are ancient, developed on the shuttle looms of China and the handlooms of India, Greece, and Europe. In Europe and Asia the handloom is still used for the finest fabrics. Japan and China lead in the production of raw silk, with India, Italy, and France following. The United States is the largest importer.


Sericulture (the culture of the silkworm) and the weaving of silk have been practiced in China from a remote period. Legend dates this back to 2640 B.C., to Empress Si Ling-chi, who not only encouraged the culture of the silkworm but also developed the process of reeling from the cocoon. This was a closely guarded secret for some 3,000 years. Silk seems to have been woven very early on the island of Kós, which Aristotle mentions, in a vague description of the silkworm, as the place where silk was "first spun," In the 1st and 2d cent. A.D. silk fabrics imported to Greece and Rome were sold for fabulous prices.

Up to the 6th cent. raw silk was brought from China, but death was the penalty for exporting silkworm eggs. About A.D. 550 two former missionaries to China, incited by Emperor Justinian, succeeded (says Procopius) in smuggling to Constantinople, in a hollow staff, both the eggs of the silkworm and the seeds of the mulberry tree. Byzantium became famous for splendid silken textiles and embroideries, used throughout medieval Europe for royal and ecclesiastical costumes and furnishings. In the 8th cent. the Moors began to carry the arts of silk culture and weaving across the northern coast of Africa and to Spain and Sicily, and in the 12th cent. Spain and Sicily were weaving silks of exquisite texture and design.

Other areas of Europe subsequently became great weaving centers. Lucca, in N Italy, had established looms by the 13th cent., and in the 14th cent. the city became famous for its materials and designs. Florence and Venice followed and wove sumptuous fabrics and velvets enriched with gold thread. Genoa's velvets became well known. France established looms, and under Louis XIV's minister Jean Baptiste Colbert it set the fashion with its beautiful silks. Lyons in S France became an important weaving center. Early attempts were made in England under Henry VI to establish the silk industry, but it was not until the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, when many French refugee weavers fled to England, that the industry received a real impetus. The French settled in Canterbury, Norwich, and other places; but it was in Spitalfields, London, that the industry became important.

Many attempts were made to establish sericulture in the American colonies: inducements such as land grants and bounties were offered, and many mulberry trees were planted. In 1759 Georgia sold more than 10,000 lb (4,535 kg) of cocoons in London. Pennsylvania had a silk industry, fostered by Benjamin Franklin, until the Revolution. The high cost of labor seems to have been the main deterrent to the success of sericulture in America.


See L. Boulnois, The Silk Road (tr. 1966).



a natural textile fiber of animal origin, produced by ejection from the silk glands (sericteries) of silkworms spinning cocoons. The principal commercial silkworm is the larva of the Asiatic mulberry silkworm moth (Bombyx mori), which is raised commercially on special farms. The larvae eject silk in the form of two filaments consisting of a protein substance called fibroin (70–80 percent by weight) surrounded by another protein substance called sericin (20–30 percent), which cements the filaments into what is called the cocoon thread (bave). In addition to fibroin and sericin, the cocoon threads contain waxes and fats (1–1.5 percent) as well as minerals, such as potassium, sodium, and calcium salts (1–1.5 percent). From the cocoon thread the silkworm shapes a solid silk shell—the cocoon—which is the raw material from which silk is obtained.

Silk is noted for its thinness, high hygroscopicity, dyeability, and pleasing, moderate luster. It has good mechanical properties: a tensile strength of the order of 40 kg-force per mm2 (1 kg-force per mm2 = 107 newtons per m2) and an extension at break of 14–18 percent. When silk is wet the first figure decreases by 10 percent, but the second increases by the same amount. Silk has little resistance to alkalis and breaks down rapidly in a 5-percent solution of NaOH. It is more resistant to the action of mineral acids, and does not dissolve in ordinary organic solvents. Silk exhibits low resistance to the effect of light; after 200 hr of exposure to sunlight it loses half its strength.

When the cocoons are reeled (unwound) a continuous silk thread up to 1,200 m long is obtained. However, the cocoon threads obtained by reeling individual cocoons are too thin to be used in industry; several must be combined to form the raw silk threads used as commercial threads. Unreeled cocoons (defective cocoons and those remaining after the moth emerges) and waste from all the processes of silk production are broken into short segments, and the fibers are processed in silk spinning.

The production of silk requires considerable labor, which makes silk one of the most expensive textile materials. As a result, silk has been replaced by various chemical fibers in the production of a number of fabrics (in particular, linings and industrial fabrics), stockings, and other articles.

World silk production in 1976 totaled 49,000 tons, approximately 10 percent of which was produced in the USSR.


Kukin, G. N., and A. N. Solov’ev. Tekstil’noe materialovedenie, parts 1–3. Moscow, 1964–67.
Rubinov, E. B., V. A. Usenko, and S. S. Ibragimov. Uchenie o shelke i kokonomotanie, part 1. Moscow, 1966.



Microscopic needle-shaped crystalline inclusions of rutile in a natural gem from which subsurface reflections produce a whitish sheen resembling that of a silk fabric.
(invertebrate zoology)
A continuous protein fiber consisting principally of fibroin and secreted by various insects and arachnids, especially the silkworm, for use in spinning cocoons, webs, egg cases, and other structures.
A thread or fabric made from silk secretions of the silkworm.


expensive fabric used in fine clothing. [Western Cult.: Misc.]
See: Luxury


1. the very fine soft lustrous fibre produced by a silkworm to make its cocoon
a. thread or fabric made from this fibre
b. (as modifier): a silk dress
3. a very fine fibre produced by a spider to build its web, nest, or cocoon
4. the tuft of long fine styles on an ear of maize
5. Brit
a. the gown worn by a Queen's (or King's) Counsel
b. Informal a Queen's (or King's) Counsel
c. take silk to become a Queen's (or King's) Counsel


A polymer-based, dielectric resin from Dow Chemical ( that is used to insulate the aluminum or copper wire traces on a chip. See ILD.
References in classic literature ?
Within the half hour we stopped again--in front of another silk store.
I have ze idea--it come to me in a moment--zat ze silk in zis magazin--"
The oiled silk is of no use without the map, and that's gone.
The two black silks will be good stand-bys for years.
Moffat, lumbering in like an elephant in silk and lace.
In a wardrobe were many green dresses, made of silk and satin and velvet; and all of them fitted Dorothy exactly.
6; and a whole wonderful underworld of lace and linen and silk stockings, the counterpart of which wonders, my clairvoyant fancy laughed to think, were at the moment--so entirely unsuspected of their original owner--my delicious possessions.
For example, there may be a deposition of dew upon the silk, to the extent, even, of several hundred pounds ; ballast has then to be thrown out, or the machine may descend.
His tiny surcoat of scarlet velvet was rich with embroidery, while beneath was a close-fitting tunic of white silk.
She conducted me to a spacious chamber in one of the buildings fronting on the plaza, and which, from the litter of silks and furs upon the floor, I took to be the sleeping quarters of several of the natives.
When you open the box the rustles will escape, whether you are wearing a silk dress or not," said the man, seriously.
The worthy gentleman was beyond measure distressed, and at that moment he would have given an ounce of silver to have had half a drachm of green silk there; I say green silk, because the stockings were green.