Cultural Selection: The Evolution of Sericulture along the Silk Roads
We invite you to read our weekly Cultural Selection articles, which adhere to preselected themes. Knowledge and appreciation of these subjects help to preserve, disseminate, and promote elements of our common heritage of the Silk Roads.
The active exchange of goods, ideas, and expertise has played a significant role in the evolution of sericulture, or silk production, along the Silk Roads. This is reflected in distinctive artistic styles and craftsmanship that has continued to spread throughout various regions. The textile was so valued, it is said that by the 4th century BC, Greeks and Romans began referring to parts of the Far East as the land of “Seres”, or silk. Moreover, sericulture techniques were heavily guarded and controlled by authorities. Silk was considered a precious textile that was reserved for the aristocracy, and its use was emblematic of authority and power. Silk was preferred by royal families, and its weavers enjoyed an elevated social status comparable to that of painters or sculptors. During the Han and Tang dynasties, the absolute value of silk increased, as well as its production. Due to its versatility and popularity, silk gradually became identified with general use. Silk clothing is characteristically lightweight and ethereal, providing warmth in cool temperatures, and relief in hotter temperatures. Not only was it used for clothing production and decoration in the Far East, but it also assumed cultural significance in the economy as a highly sought, valuable commodity.
During silk production, silk threads are woven into textile cloth or used for embroidery work. Literary sources such as The Book of History and The Book of Rites detail aspects of sericulture. Reeling silk and spinning were household duties attributed to women, while weaving and embroidery were often conducted in workshops. In silk-producing provinces, the intergenerational aspect was apparent. Women devoted a large portion of the year to care of the silkworms, as well as to the unraveling, spinning, weaving, dyeing, and embroidery of the silk. Initially, production of both silk twine and silk cloth could be attributed solely to those in the Far East. However, around 300 CE, the production of silk twine appeared in regions as far west as the Roman province of Syria, created during the Roman Empire (27 BC- 393 CE). It was here that the Sasanian, Shapur II (310-379 CE), established the most influential silk-weaving industry. From 224-651 CE, the Sasanians exerted significant influence in the world, and their expansion caused considerable conflict in Rome. The Sasanian region was an expansive area, recognized for its expert weavers, especially in cities such as Susa, which is located in modern Iran. Sasanian silks were then exported to both the East and West, by way of maritime and terrestrial routes. Those textiles originating in the Far East and Indian sub-continent, where silk-producing centers also appeared, inspired their designs. These designs were then incorporated into local textile patterns according to aesthetic preferences. Conversely, weavers originating from the Far East borrowed Sasanian motifs, thus transforming and recontextualizing the designs into their own culture.
Weavers from Byzantium, who considered themselves inheritors of the ancient Roman Empire, exhibited a similar trend. These Byzantine weavers generally hailed from cities such as Constantinople and Antioch. Two main types of silk weaving patterns were produced. The first was based on hunting or battle scenes, while the latter was comprised of a series of circles enveloping birds and other small animals. A Byzantine silk fragment from the tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (742-814), incorporates both of these graphic designs. The burgeoning Byzantine textile industry subsequently led to the spread of silk weaving even further west. Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154) introduced silk weavers from Constantinople to Palermo in the 12th century. As a result of this act, the Italian silk industry was borne, and still exists. Moreover, during Pax Mongolica, silk textiles emanating from the Far East were ubiquitous throughout the region now known as Italy. This was apparent with the juxtaposition and visible translation of Italian designs with Far Eastern influences onto luxurious textiles. The resultant patterns encapsulated a greater degree of fluidity and boldness. In addition, the appearance of heraldic animals typical of the Sasanian style decreased, while flourishing arabesque ornamentation and scrawling vegetation were adapted from Far Eastern designs. Moreover, the UNESCO World Heritage site, La Lonja de la Seda (Silk Exchange) in Valencia, Spain, built from 1482-1522, assumed a pronounced role in the evolution of sericulture. Emblematic of the power and wealth associated with the Mediterranean mercantile city in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was originally used for trading in silk, and renowned as a center of commerce. In contemporary society, the production of silk worldwide has steadily increased, especially in the Far East, despite the manufacture of synthetic textiles that are able to substitute its use. Regional variations of silk weaving exist, but the transmission of savoir-faire, knowledge, and expertise from one generation to the next allow these techniques to be disseminated throughout local and international communities along the Silk Roads even today.
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