Silk Defined

Textile Glossary  Silk Prices 

There are five major types of silk of commercial importance, obtained from different species of silkworms which in turn feed on a number of food plants. These are:
  • Mulberry
  • Tasar
  • Oak Tasar
  • Muga
  • Eri

The word "silk" alone usually refers to mulberry silk, while other varieties of silks are generally referred to as non-mulberry silks. India has the unique distinction of producing all these commercial varieties of silk.

Mulberry: This type constitutes the bulk of world silk production. Mulberry silk comes from the silkworm Bombyx mori L., which exclusively feeds on the leaves of mulberry plant. These silkworms are completely domesticated and reared indoors.

Tasar: Tasar (Tussah) has a copperish colour and a coarse texture, and is mainly used for furnishing purposes. It is not as lustrous or soft as mulberry but has its own feel. Tasar silk is produced by the silkworm Antheraea mylitta, which mainly thrive on the food plants Asan and Arjun. They are reared outdoors on trees.

Oak Tasar: This is a finer variety of tasar produced in both India and China by two different varities of silkworm. The silkworm Antheraea proyeli J. feeds on the leaves of oak trees in the sub-Himalayan belt of India, including the states of Manipur, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya and Jammu & Kashmir. China is the major producer of oak tasar in the world, spun by the silkworm Antheraea pernyi.

Eri: Also known as Endi or Errandi, Eri is a silk spun from open-ended cocoons, unlike other varieties of silk. It is created by the domesticated silkworm Philosamia ricini, which feeds mainly on castor leaves.

Muga: This golden yellow colour silk is exclusive to India and indigenous to the state of Assam. It is obtained from the semi-domesticated silkworm Antheraea assamensis. These silkworms feed on the aromatic leaves of Som and Soalu plants and are reared in the wild like Tasar. The muga silk is a highly valued material used in fine clothing such as saris, mekhalas, chaddars, etc.

Silk is a natural protein fibre, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The best-known type of silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity (sericulture). The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fibre, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.

Silks are produced by several other insects, but only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for textile manufacturing. There has been some research into other silks, which differ at the molecular levelSilks are mainly produced by the larvae of insects undergoing complete metamorphosis, but also by some adult insects such as webspinners. Silk production is especially common in the Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, and ants), and is sometimes used in nest construction. Other types of arthropod produce silk, most notably various arachnids such as spiders.

Silk from Thailand

Silk is produced, year round, in Thailand by two types of silkworms, the cultured Bombycidae and wild Saturniidae. Most production is after the rice harvest in the southern and northeast parts of the country. Women traditionally weave silk on hand looms, and pass the skill on to their daughters as weaving is considered to be a sign of maturity and eligibility for marriage. Thai silk textiles often use complicated patterns in various colours and styles. Most regions of Thailand have their own typical silks. A single thread filament is too thin to use on its own so women combine many threads to produce a thicker, usable fibre. They do this by hand-reeling the threads onto a wooden spindle to produce a uniform strand of raw silk. The process takes around 40 hours to produce a half kilogram of Thai silk.

Many local operations use a reeling machine for this task, but some silk threads are still hand-reeled. The difference is that hand-reeled threads produce three grades of silk: two fine grades that are ideal for lightweight fabrics, and a thick grade for heavier material.

The silk fabric is soaked in extremely cold water and bleached before dyeing to remove the natural yellow coloring of Thai silk yarn. To do this, skeins of silk thread are immersed in large tubs of hydrogen peroxide. Once washed and dried, the silk is woven on a traditional hand operated loom.

Silk from China

Silk fabric was first developed in ancient China, with some of the earliest examples found as early as 3500 BC.  Legend gives credit for developing silk to a Chinese empress, Lei Zu (Hsi-Ling-Shih, Lei-Tzu). Silks were originally reserved for the Kings of China for their own use and gifts to others, but spread gradually through Chinese culture and trade both geographically and socially, and then to many regions of Asia. Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants because of its texture and luster. Silk was in great demand, and became a staple of pre-industrial international trade. In July 2007, archeologists discovered intricately woven and dyed silk textiles in a tomb in Jiangxi province, dated to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty roughly 2,500 years ago.  Although historians have suspected a long history of a formative textile industry in ancient China, this find of silk textiles employing "complicated techniques" of weaving and dyeing provides direct and concrete evidence for silks dating before the Mawangdui-discovery and other silks dating to the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD).

The first evidence of the silk trade is the finding of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy of the 21st dynasty, c.1070 BC.  Ultimately the silk trade reached as far as the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. This trade was so extensive that the major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia has become known as the Silk Road. The highest development was in China.

Silk from India

Silk, known as "Paat" in Eastern India, Pattu in southern parts of India and Resham in Hindi/Urdu, has a long history in India. Recent archaeological discoveries in Harappa and Chanhu-daro suggest that sericulture, employing wild silk threads from native silkworm species, existed in South Asia during the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, roughly contemporaneous with the earliest known silk use in China.  According to an article in Nature by Philip Ball, while there is fast evidence for silk production in China back to around 2570 BC, newly discovered silk objects from the Indus valley in eastern Pakistan are believed to date from between 2450 BC and 2000 BC, "making them similarly ancient".[15] Shelagh Vainker, a silk expert at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, sees evidence for silk production in China "significantly earlier" than 25002000 BC, however suggests "people of the Indus civilization either harvested silkworm cocoons or traded with people who did, and that they knew a considerable amount about silk."  Silk is widely produced today. India is the second largest producer of silk after China. A majority of the silk in India is produced in Karnataka State, particularly in Mysore and the North Bangalore regions of Muddenahalli, Kanivenarayanapura, and Doddaballapur.  India is also the largest consumer of silk in the world. The tradition of wearing silk sarees in marriages by the brides is followed in southern parts of India. Silk is worn by people as a symbol of royalty while attending functions and during festivals. Historically silk was used by the upper classes, while cotton was used by the poorer classes. Today silk is mainly produced in Bhoodhan Pochampally (also known as Silk City), Kanchipuram, Dharmavaram, Mysore, etc. in South India and Banaras in the North for manufacturing garments and sarees.  The silk is traditionally hand-woven and hand-dyed and usually also has silver threads woven into the cloth. Most of this silk is used to make sarees. The sarees usually are very expensive and vibrant in color. Garments made from silk form an integral part of Indian weddings and other celebrations. In the northeastern state of Assam, three different types of silk are produced, collectively called Assam silk: Muga, Eri and Pat silk. Muga, the golden silk, and Eri are produced by silkworms that are native only to Assam. The heritage of silk rearing and weaving is very old and continues today especially with the production of Muga and Pat riha and mekhela chador, the three-piece silk sarees woven with traditional motifs. Mysore Silk Sarees, which are known for their soft texture, last many years if carefully maintained.

Silk in North America

James I of England introduced silk-growing to the American colonies around 1619, ostensibly to discourage tobacco planting. The Shakers in Kentucky adopted the practice as did a cottage industry in New England.  In the 19th century a new attempt at a silk industry began with European-born workers in Paterson, New Jersey, and the city became a US silk center, although Japanese imports were still more important.

World War II interrupted the silk trade from Japan. Silk prices increased dramatically, and US industry began to look for substitutes, which led to the use of synthetics such as nylon. Synthetic silks have also been made from lyocell, a type of cellulose fiber, and are often difficult to distinguish from real silk.

The above definition of silk was retrieved from the Wikipedia silk definition page on June 15, 2011.  The definition has been modified by the Silk Prices website (Apparel Search Company).  To view the most current and unmodified version, you can visit

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You may also find the following education links to be helpful.
Silk CRB Fundamentals (2008 Information; but still helpful).
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