Atlantic History Silk
by
Ben Marsh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0233

Introduction

Since its emergence in Neolithic China, the use and cultivation of silk has expanded dramatically across the globe. First spreading through central Asia along the ancient Silk Route, silk colonized new peoples and rapidly penetrated new markets. Its high value as a trade good prompted copycat efforts in manufacturing and silkworm cultivation (sericulture). Islamic expansionism was an important agent of diffusion, as new production sites developed around the Mediterranean. By the 15th century a number of regions within Europe had developed proficiency, notably in Italy, Spain, and later France. The acceleration of European oceanic exploration and trade in subsequent centuries restructured the global exchange of silk in dramatic ways. Raw silk and silk fabrics became prized cargoes shipped home from the Indies, both feeding and challenging growing European manufacturing centers, which themselves pandered to a widening consumer base for textiles. Competition for producers and consumers played out in the Americas, where nascent colonies attempted to introduce sericulture and growing colonial populations sought out a wide array of silken products. More a zone of diffusion than a place of production, the Americas became a great recipient initially of Chinese silk through the Spanish Pacific trade and later of Asian and European silks through the Atlantic.

General Overviews

Such is the significance of silk as one of the earliest and most valuable commodities to be traded across significant distances that a number of overviews of the history of silk and silk exchange exist catering to a range of readerships. Scott 2001 and Schoeser 2007 are valuable recent surveys and large in scale and scope, oriented visually as much as textually, with accurate summaries of wider transformations across global history, the latter leaning more toward the modern. Kuhn 2012 offers a magisterial survey of the history of Chinese silks, addressing multiple perspectives, from the archaeological to the technological and aesthetic. Liu 2004 is a classic work detailing the intersections between Asian silk and cultural identity along the “Silk Roads” in the centuries before substantial oceanic trade. Jenkins 2003 is a generational reference work that provides a different kind of overview, not as cover to cover but selectively drawn from the several chapters that offer penetrating insights and syntheses of social, economic, and aesthetic aspects of the history of silk. Zanier 1994 is included for engaging with the larger comparative technical history of silk production in East and West, and Federico 1997 addresses silk’s global economic history in the 19th and 20th centuries. In contrast, Bush 1987 provides a snappy summary that is more narrowly focused on the British experience.

  • Bush, Sarah. The Silk Industry. Aylesbury, UK: Shire, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    Accessible and very compact introductory booklet explaining the origins and development of the British silk industry, including attention to its decline in the 19th century.

  • Federico, Giovanni. An Economic History of the Silk Industry, 1830–1930. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511563034E-mail Citation »

    An original economic history of the commodity (in raw rather than wrought form), which locates individual countries’ production performances within the wider context of global export competition and seeks to explain patterns of demand and trade. Focuses on the principal producers (Italy, China, and Japan) and main consumer regions (Western Europe and the United States), with attention to silkworm disease and technical progress.

  • Jenkins, David T., ed. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Not exclusively focused on silk but offers extensive coverage within its mammoth twelve hundred pages, compiled by economic and social historians as well as historians of fashion, dress, design, and curatorial and archaeological experts. Careful explanation of processes and technical terms.

  • Kuhn, Dieter, ed. Chinese Silks. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    Coauthored by leading international authorities, both Western and Chinese (Chen Juanjuan, Huang Nengfu, Dieter Kuhn, Li Wenying, Peng Hao, and Zhao Feng), this impressive compilation offers a chronological treatment of Chinese silks with considerable attention to the archaeological record, material fabric, and points of innovation. Fine illustrations and technical explanations accompany insights into the changing historical functions of silk textiles.

  • Liu, Xinru. Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People, AD 600–1200. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Wide study, first published in 1996, emphasizing the material role of silk in effectuating the unprecedented growth in communication and interaction between cultural regions: East and South Asia, West and Central Asia, and the Mediterranean and Europe. Parallels are particularly drawn between the Byzantine Empire and Tang China and in silk’s comparable religious applications.

  • Schoeser, Mary. Silk. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive and beautifully illustrated account of silk’s properties, development, and uses over the ages. Particularly oriented toward the history of fashion design and with a useful essay on sericulture by Silvio Farago.

  • Scott, Philippa. The Book of Silk. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A lavishly produced book with large numbers of color photographs, which traces the development of silk industries through five millennia from their earliest origins in China to many countries of Asia, northern Africa, and Europe. Particular attention to design and fashion; offers a useful bibliography (including museums and collections) by region although the text is not footnoted. Originally published in 1993.

  • Zanier, Claudio. Where the Roads Met: East and West in the Silk Production Processes (17th to 19th Century). Kyoto: Istituto italiano di cultura, Scuola di studi sull’Asia orientale, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    An adaptation of two lectures delivered in Kyoto in 1993, rather clumsily edited, but with fine bibliographical insights. Although concise, provocatively addresses the cross influences and parallel development of East Asian and European sericulture and silk technology, arguing for a high degree of endogenous Piedmontese technological innovation.

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