A CHINESE PRINCESS AND HER SILK DRESS
A SECRET KEPT FOR THREE THOUSAND YEARS
WHEN COLOR CAME
FROM FIBER TO CLOTH
When Adam delved, and Eve span,
IT IS an old English rhyme which credits the first woman, Eve, the mother of the race, with being the first spinner. If the first woman did not weave or spin, we may suppose that some of her daughters or granddaughters or great-greatgranddaughters did, for weaving is an art that was practised so far back in the childhood of the world that no one tries to trace its beginnings. Before the early man of the north made for himself a fur-lined garment from the skin of some animal, the woman of the south had plaited long grass blades or the tapering leaves of reeds and rushes into a basket in which to carry more things than her two hands could hold, a mat to cover the damp, hard floor of her cave or hut, and an apron or skirt with which to clothe herself.
By the time that Jubal, the brother of Tubal-cain, had become a herdsman and the father of all herdsmen, his mother Adah and his wife and daughter had doubtless become expert in weaving plant leaves or fibers into the coverings and mats for the tents in which they dwelt. Perhaps they had wound the fibers into a coarse thread which they pushed through holes punched in the edges of the tent coverings to hold them together.
It was back in those very early days that woman began to concern herself with the clothing as well as the food of her family, and practise with her poor tools the arts which were to be one of her later glories, for women have been the creators of the beautiful arts of spinning, weaving, and dyeing. It was a woman who first split the fiber of the flax plant and twisted it into thread. A woman, the wife of a herdsman, wandering in chilly days on the high hills, took strands of the wool from the coat of a sheep and made of it a warm coat for her child. A woman, wishing to twist the hairs of the sheep or the fibers of the flax plant into a long, firm thread, hit on the idea of putting the bunch of loose, short pieces on a stick and spinning it round and round so that she could draw out swiftly a long, hard-twisted thread. She was the inventor of the spindle, which was turned at first by hand and later by the spinning wheel. It was the love of beauty in a woman which made her grow weary of the plain, dull colors of the wool and dip into a bath of plant juice the threads which she was to use, so as to give color and beauty to her work.
These women of whom we speak lived in the days of wandering tribes. With the dawn of agriculture and the making of homes, the chance came for women to plan their work. They need no longer be satisfied with only such coarse materials as they might happen on in the fields. They could cultivate flax or cotton plants for their cloths of lighter weight and raise sheep to provide for wool. The calling of the herdsman became doubly profitable when the coat as well as the meat of his animal was as valuable in exchange as money. There is a record in the Bible telling how Mesha, the King of Moab, who was a sheepmaster, paid his tribute to the King of Israel in the form of the wool of a hundred thousand lambs and of a hundred thousand rams. The art of women in making woven goods of all kinds had given to raw wool a commercial value.
Again in our Bibles, we come in the Book of Proverbs upon one of the most beautiful pictures of the ideal woman of the period several hundred years before the Christian era, when all the arts and crafts of the household were under her capable direction. These are given as the "words of King Lemuel," which his mother taught him, so that he should know what kind of a wife a king’s son should seek out.
She seeketh wool and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
If you were a little Chinese girl tending your mother’s silkworms, you might weary of the task of gathering endless piles of fresh mulberry leaves for the hungry little creatures to eat. But if you complained to your mother of the task, she would say to you: "If the great and worshipful Empress Hsi-Ling-Shih could tend silkworms with her own hands when she was a young girl, is there any reason why a common little girl like you should not?"
Then you would bow very low in your shame and say, "No, honored mother, I will do it gladly."
But when you were through with your work, perhaps you would ask her to tell you again the story of the Empress and her silkworms, and this is the tale that she would tell.
"Long, long ago, when all the rest of the world were barbarians and savages, the Chinese people were wise and clever about many things. That was a Golden Age in our land, when the Yellow Emperor, Hwang-ti, who was directly descended from the gods themselves, ruled the land. Hwangti was wise and kindly in his rule and did many things for his people. He gave the merchants a true system of weights and measures so that when the poor people bought tea or rice, they could always know how much they were buying and would not be cheated in the prices. He taught the men of the river how to build boats, so that all China was united by the boats which went up and down its long rivers. During his long reign the first metals were discovered and the first dishes were made out of pottery. All the land prospered in the time of the great Yellow Emperor, child of the gods, who lived for a hundred years and blessed the land of his wisdom. But though Hwang-ti was the greatest of emperors, yet he with all his wisdom and all his labors at affairs of state did not do as much for the future welfare of his country as did his fair young wife, Hsi-Ling-Shih, who sat at home in her garden and took notice there of an ugly little worm.
"The garden was full of mulberry trees. That was why the silkworms lived there, for they love the mulberry leaves, as you know well, little daughter. The young Empress, who never touched her hand to any work, came and sat in the garden under the trees to keep cool from the scorching heat of the sun.
"One day when she entered the garden she stopped and listened, for there was a sound in the trees as if rain were falling. Yet the sun was high in the heavens. She listened and watched, and then she saw that all the little worms which she had watched idly as they climbed on the branches and had disliked because they ate the leaves of her pretty mulberry trees had stopped eating and were making cocoons for themselves. Her attendants told her that they would keep on with the spinning of their cocoons for three days and three nights. Then, when they had shut themselves completely in from the air and wind and sun, they would sleep for a full moon, after which they would eat a hole in the end of the cocoon and fly out as beautiful winged moths. Hsi-Ling-Shih had never seen a butterfly come out of a cocoon. So she watched for the three days while the busy little worms worked, and then, when the three days were up and the garden was still again, she began to count the days until the moths would fly.
"Sure enough, when the moon had come again to the full, out they came, hundreds of soft-winged flying creatures. But Hsi-Ling-Shih was not so curious about the silk moths as she was about this house or cover which they had spun for themselves. Dozens of the empty golden-yellow cocoons lay on the ground. She picked them up and studied them and drew out the soft silky thread of which they were made. ‘What a wonderfully soft, fine thread this is,’ she said to herself. ‘It is finer and softer than the fibers of which my robes are woven. If we only knew how to make a thread so soft.’
"Hsi-Ling-Shih played idly with the cocoons in her hand, testing the thread and noticing how strong it was, and rubbing it across her hand to feel how soft it was. Then all at once an idea came to her. Why should she try to think of a way to make thread like it? Why not take the thread which the little worm had made and use it for a thread with which to spin and weave a dress for herself?
"When the next time came that the silkworms were spinning, the young Empress went again to the garden, but this time it was not to watch. This time she took the cocoon as soon as it was finished, before the moth had cut a hole in it to come out, and tried to unwind the silky thread as it was wrapped round and round. At first it broke in her hands, but she soon learned that if she dropped it in hot water, which would kill the little worm, the silk would be much softer and easier to unwind.
"The silk which came from one cocoon was very little, but she set all her attendants to picking up cocoons, until there were piles upon piles of them. When they had been boiled, she sat and wound the silk on a round stick, one length after another, until she had many, many yards of the soft stuff. Then she took it to her loom, where she was accustomed to the weaving of flax and wool, and wove a tiny piece of cloth from the golden, shining mass of silk.
"So that is why we go each year, little daughter, at the time when the mulberry leaves come out, to the temple, you and your grandmother and your father and your uncle and I, to worship the Empress Hsi-Ling-Shih, who is the goddess of silk, for with her own hands and by her own quick wits she found out the secret of the spinning of silk and taught it to her people."
"Did everyone raise silkworms after that?" the little daughter might ask.
And the mother would reply: "Yes, when the ladies of the court heard that the Empress was raising silkworms, they all wanted to be in fashion and raise them. The Empress used to go out into the palace garden with golden tools to cut the mulberry leaves and a golden dish on which to gather them; and the other ladies of the court were permitted to go out with silver tools and silver dishes to help to collect the leaves. What the people of the court did, all the people wanted to do. So before long in all the land the people were raising silkworms and reeling the silk on spindles for their looms, and all the rich folk were wearing silken gowns and silken girdles and using silken covering in their houses."
"But does not everyone in the world raise silkworms?" our little Chinese girl might ask. Then her mother might tell her another story of how the secret of the silkworm and its spinning was kept in China for three thousand years.
Can you think of a whole nation keeping a secret for one hundred years or two hundred years? Can you think of men and women and children all knowing that secret and of inquisitive visitors from other lands moving about in the market places and towns and trying to spy out that secret, yet of no one giving it away? That is what the people of China did with the secret of the silkworm for thirty long centuries, three thousand years.
It was not that other people did not want to know the secret, but that the Chinese guarded it so carefully. So proud were they, in the first period of silk culture, of this wonderful new fabric which they had created that there were laws made by the rulers forbidding any one to take any silk out of the country. Foreign traders might come and buy pottery and tea and rice, plows and hammered metal and whatever else of the Chinese craftsmen’s products they might desire; but on the shining webs of soft silken fabric they might only gaze with covetous, eyes. Those were not for sale.
The lure of trade was too strong to keep merchants from smuggling silk cloth over the borders. Silk did get out of China, even in those years when the laws were strict. It got out more and more in later centuries as the intercourse with other nations increased. There is an old road cut across the mountains from Persia to China. Some say it is the oldest road in the world. It began as a footpath, wide enough only for a single file of men to walk along it. Gradually it was hewed out of rock and stone and laid across trackless plains until it became the greatest caravan route in the ancient world, the road from the Near East to the Far East, the road over which the peoples of the Mediterranean traveled in the quest for the beautiful products of the craftsmen of China and India. Over that road traders brought silk out of China to the wealthy folk of Egypt and Assyria, of Babylon and Phenicia.
But while they brought bolts of cloth, smuggled out secretly or purchased openly, the Persian traders never found out China’s secret of the silkworm. Alexander the Great came near to conquering the whole world. When he led his armies over into the regions of the Orient, in the fourth century before Christ, he saw the cotton plant in India and took it and brought it back to Greece. He saw silken garments worn by Chinese nobles, and bought garments like them. He went into the places where the cloth was manufactured and bought not only bolts of cloth but bunches of raw silk before it was woven into cloth. But where that raw silk came from, he could not find out. That was China’s age-old secret which even the would-be conqueror of the world could not discover.
Romans of the early Christian era moved about the palaces of Rome in silken robes bought from the Persian traders. They went so far as to ravel yards of Chinese silk cloth and re-weave it into their own patterns. But it was frightfully expensive. In the days of the Roman Empire the use of silk was restricted by law to the nobility. The Emperor Aurelian (212—275 A.D.) refused to wear silk himself or to allow his wife to have a silk dress because it was so expensive. "Woven wind" they called it, in contrast to the heavier goods of their own making.
It was a Chinese princess who finally broke the law. She was to be married in about 120 A.D. to an Indian potentate, King of Khotan. He knew that a Chinese princess would be accustomed to dress only in silk, and sent word to her that while India was famous for its cotton, it could supply her no silk. Daring greatly, the princess concealed mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs in her headdress when she set off on her bridal journey to her future home, and succeeded in passing the frontier without being detected in an offense which was punishable by death. Arrived in her adopted country, she began to cultivate silkworms. But Chinese ambassadors to her husband’s court, seeing what she had done and powerless to punish her when she was queen of another land, resolved that still the precious secret should be kept. So they told the King that his wife was harboring venomous snakes, and the King promptly had the "snake-rearing" house destroyed by fire.
The secret did filter into India in the early years of the Christian era, and in 289 A.D. it is known that four Chinese girls were sent to the neighbor country of Japan in order to teach the culture of the silkworm there. But as late as 500 A.D. silk making was unknown in Constantinople, then the leading capital of the Western world. The Emperor Justinian, ruling from Constantinople, was a clever and aggressive man in lines of commerce. Like Alexander the Great he was always seeking out some new thing that was done in other lands. Two Persian monks of the Nestorian order of the Christian faith returned to Constantinople who had lived long years in the Chinese Empire, learning there, as real residents could hardly help doing, the whole method of silkworm rearing and silk culture. The Emperor heard their story and was greatly excited by it. He made them promise that on their next trip to Constantinople they would attempt to bring him out some silkworm eggs.
The story is that in the year 555 these monks did bring out silkworm eggs concealed in their hollow bamboo walking staves. In Constantinople the eggs were carefully tended under the monks’ direction. The little worms spun their cocoons and came out as moths after as regular a fashion as if they had not been carried half round the world. So the Emperor had his silkworm culture safely started. He had the whole process carried on in his own palace, even to the setting up of looms where women could work at the weaving within the imperial walls and under his own personal observation. But no secret could be kept in the sixth century in Constantinople, even in an imperial palace, as it had been kept in earlier centuries in remote China. Although Justinian reserved a monopoly for himself on silken goods, allowing no one else to manufacture them, the industry was soon to be found elsewhere in the Western world.
From the eggs in that bamboo staff came the start of a great industry which flourished in southern Europe and especially in and near Venice for the next twelve hundred years. At last the three thousand-year-old secret was "out."
Our next story comes in modern times, within the past seventy-five or a hundred years. To arrive at that story we must travel across a bridge of a thousand and more years, during which two groups of arts were developing, both of which were to serve in the fashioning of clothing in modern times.
One was the art of machinery. Skill in the weaving of cloth grew apace with the invention and introduction of machinery in the late Middle Ages. If we were to date the periods of cloth manufacture, we should find that from the dawn of history to about the fourteenth century, AD., the implements of spinning all over the world were the simple, primitive ones of the distaff and spindle. The Chinese weaver of silk, the Hindu weaver of cotton, and the workers of the early Middle Ages in Europe would have found their tools and their looms practically interchangeable.
The romance of the wheel touches then the ancient and universal industry, and from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century we find the spinning wheel, which was also used in the nineteenth century in homes, even in our own country. From 1738 on in England, when there was a great call for cloth and the old primitive home methods became too slow and cumbersome, English inventors of machines turned their attention to the weaving industry. In 1738, as a history of textiles picturesquely puts it, "the first thread was spun without fingers." Think what that means! After three or four thousand years in which all the thread to be woven into cloth to clothe mankind had been spun with a twist by human fingers, wheels were put in as rollers to do the same work. Within thirty years Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, and Arkwright in 1768 built a spinning machine too heavy to be turned by the human hand. This was turned either by horse or mule power or by the water wheel—another chapter in "the romance of the wheel," when it took spinning outside the home and put it into a small factory by a swift-flowing stream. In 1789 Cartwright’s first power loom was set going, using steam as power. So began the great modern factory system of cloth manufacture by which hundreds of yards are turned out by machinery in the time that it would have taken an old-time spinner to weave a single yard by hand. The art of machinery transformed the industry.
The chemist was to make the other great contribution in the business of clothing the world. A chemist’s assistant, seventeen years old, working overtime in a London laboratory, made in the year 1856 a discovery which deserves to be ranked as one of the great moments of science in the history of the modern world.
While all this progress had been made in the fashioning of cloth, little or no gain had come in the field of dyes with which to color it. It still took thousands of shellfish from the harbor of Tyre with their drop or two apiece of liquid to give to a small piece of cloth the color of royal purple. India was raising indigo plants over a million acres of her territory, to supply the indigo blue for the world, and other nations were finding it profitable to raise indigo plants to compete with her. The leaves of woad, a European plant, supplied a rival blue. Red dye, cochineal, was obtained from a tropical insect. Turkey red came from the madder plant. So men searched the world over for bright-colored dyes manufactured by Nature in plant, insect, or shellfish, until the chemist in his laboratory was able to rival Nature in dye making and to robe the world in all the colors of the rainbow.
William Henry Perkin was an English lad who had a passion for chemistry. At the age of thirteen, in his City of London school, he found that an extra set of chemistry lectures was to be given at the noon recess and promptly enrolled for them, although it meant going without his lunch. At fifteen he left school because he heard that a German chemist by the name of Hofmann was opening a laboratory at the Royal College of London. Hofmann took the eager boy into his laboratory and set him to work at research problems. Chemists in that period were deep in the study of the way all substances were composed of the various elements put together in different combinations. Hofmann happened to set young Perkin at the problem of trying to make artificial quinine (which should be substituted for the natural quinine found in the bark of a tree) from coal tar, which seemed to have many of the same elements.
Coal tar is a black, sticky stuff which is left when soft coal is burned in an enclosed vessel. It had been considered by coke makers and gas makers, who burned coal in this fashion to get coke or gas, to be a useless waste product, and rather a nuisance besides, because it got into their pipes and clogged them up. For a hundred years it had been thrown away. But chemists were working then, as they are working now, on any waste product to see if it might not be turned to use. So Perkin was put to work on the quinine problem, and got so interested in his job that he set up a private laboratory of his own, where he could work evenings and holidays. It was in that laboratory, during the Easter vacation of 1856, that he was heating some aniline oil and got a black, tarry mixture in his test tube. He went to wash it out with alcohol and was startled to find that when he poured in alcohol he got a beautiful purple mixture. This was the first of the aniline dyes of which there are now hundreds made in chemical factories.
That was a great moment in the history of chemistry and of man. Any moment is great in which man comes into power as creator in a new field. In taking known substances and so putting them together under the influence of heat that they form an entirely new substance, man is rivaling Nature in the business of creation. Perkin did this in his test tube. Ten years later he made his success even more spectacular by manufacturing in the laboratory a "Turkey red" dye exactly like in composition the dye manufactured by the madder plant. Other chemists were working on the same lines. For forty years it was known by chemists that when plant indigo was broken up, it gave off aniline oil. But how to reverse the process and get indigo from aniline oil was another matter. Adolf von Baeyer of Munich labored on the problem of the constitution of indigo for fifteen years, and solved its secret so that at the end of the time he was able to make indigo.
Within two years of the discovery by Perkin of how to make alizarin (Turkey red) in the laboratory instead of taking it from the madder root, the madder fields of France were being put to other uses than for its growth. Nature could not rival man’s factory in cheapness and abundance of production.
Before man turned chemist and was able to analyze how substances were made, he had to hunt the world over for his colors. Now he can go into the laboratory and create his colors. In a commercial list of dyestuffs published in a recent year there were recorded a thousand dyes made from coal tar. When the weaver has turned out by machinery yards of fabric of every weight and texture with which we shall be clothed, the chemist is able at small expense to tint those goods with a thousand hues. The result has transformed our daily lives. No longer does a king pay six hundred dollars a pound for precious "royal purple"; his humblest subject can be clothed in any color or combination of colors at a price hardly more than that of the cheapest, dull-hued fabrics. In his age-long search for beauty man has come on a secret which makes him a creator of beauty.
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© 2001, by Lynn Waterman