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Silk Rugs – Silk Carpets and area rugs are the most luxurious productions of their kind. The silk textile production began in China, although silk rugs are unattested there until the seventeenth century.
Silk textile manufacture was well established in Persia by the Sassanian Period (third to seventh centuries). Consequently, it would have been possible for the Persians of this period or those of Early Islamic times to have adapted silk to rug production. But it is so far unclear whether China or the Islamic Orient initiated the manufacture of silk carpets.
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At any rate, the earliest extant of all the antique handmade silk rugs are in fact the handmade Persian silk rugs of the Safavid Period. Eventually rugs with all or part silk construction came to be made in virtually all Oriental rug – producing regions – Persia, Turkey, Turkestan, Tibet, and China. In the finest examples, not only the pile but even the foundation (wefts and warp fringes) are made of silk. Silk rugs are luxurious not only because of the fine texture and the reflective, luminous properties of the pile, but also because of the quality of their color. Silk allows the dyes to achieve a richness and intensity that can never be matched by even the finest wool.
Silk is a magical fiber that is unbelievably thin and astoundingly strong. Even when silk highlights are used to add definition to ornate designs, the complexion of a carpet or textile can change completely. The hand of silk rugs and textiles is rich and sumptuous. These traits are matched by the luminosity of colors when light is reflected by the fiber’s prismatic structure. Silk is lithe yet exceptionally durable. As a commodity, it built the world’s most famous trade route and created immortal legends. Today, silk is still the ultimate luxury fiber. The intrinsic value and beauty of silk is destined to outshine all other natural and synthetic fibers known to man.
The Unmistakable Look of Antique Silk Rugs
Silk rugs have an unmistakable luminescence, sheen and sumptuous soft texture. This luxurious fiber has a magical effect when used to craft rugs or when used as decorative accents to give designs a shimmering glow. Thinner than a human hair, silk fibers have a crystalline structure that refracts ambient light and produces the sleek shiny look that this natural fiber is known for. Although the process for unwinding thousands of feet of silk from a cocoon is tedious, the stunning result is well worth the labor. These magnificent carpets were produced extensively in India, China, Persia and Turkey. Handmade silk rugs have an incomparable beauty and luxurious appearance that makes them exceptionally desirable. When displayed on the floor or on a wall, silk rugs make an impressive statement.
Cultivating, Curating, Producing and Harvesting Silk For Weaving Silk Rugs
When creating silk rugs, most commercial silk is harvested from the Bombyx mori, which is also known as the mulberry silk moth, or more colloquially as the silkworm. The silk, an animal protein fiber, is produced by the moth when it is in its larval or caterpillar stage. It is not literally a worm, but bears some resemblance to a worm at this stage of its life cycle.
Silk for silk rugs have been produced by domesticated species for thousands of years. The Bombyx mori was domesticated from the wild Bombyx mandarina, and eventually came to differ substantially from it. The Bombyx mori has lost its pigmentation and its ability to fly, and is largely dependent on humans for its reproduction.
Life Cycle of the Silkworm
Cultivation of silk from domestic silkworms is called “sericulture.”
The first stage of the silkworm life cycle, and hence the first stage of the sericulture process, is the laying of eggs. This is typically done in an aluminum box or other container. Each egg is as tiny as a pinhead. An adult female silkworm (that is, one that is in the moth stage of its life cycle) typically lays 300-400 eggs at a time. It dies almost immediately upon laying its eggs, and the adult males die shortly thereafter. In fact, the adult stage of the life cycle is very brief; the adults possess only a rudimentary mouth and do not even eat.
The eggs are examined carefully for any sign of disease. If no such problems are detected, they are incubated for about ten days.
When the eggs hatch, this commences the larva stage. The caterpillars are only about a quarter inch long when they emerge from the egg, but they grow rapidly to a size of about three inches as they do little more than eat constantly during this stage. The caterpillar will ultimately eat about 50,000 times its initial weight.
A fine layer of gauze is placed over the caterpillars when the eggs hatch. They are fed primarily chopped white mulberry leaves, hence the alternate name of mulberry silk moth. Lettuce, Osage orange, and other plant material is also sometimes used as feed. The caterpillars eat and grow for about six weeks, shedding their skin four times along the way.
At this point, the caterpillars are ready to spin their cocoons, which takes three to eight days. This is when the silk is produced.
The silkworm climbs up onto some sort of frame that has been provided for that purpose in its container. A pair of salivary glands in the silkworm called “sericteries” produce a clear, viscous fluid called “fibroin,” while another pair of glands produce a gummy fluid called “sericin.” The silkworm forces these substances through openings—spinnerets—in its mouthpart. The fibroin secretions harden immediately when exposed to the air, forming twin filaments. These filaments are then immediately bonded together by the sericin.
This is the silk of the silkworm.
For the next several days, the silkworm meticulously builds its cocoon with this silk, following a figure-8 path hundreds of thousands of times. Over the course of this time it produces approximately one kilometer of silk.
Harvesting the Silk For Weaving Silk Rugs
At this point, the cocoon is carefully heated to loosen the silk. The silk is softened, and then gradually unwound. Generally the silk of four to eight cocoons is unwound together, forming one thicker strand.
Through a process called “throwing,” the raw silk is then twisted into a strand strong enough not to split into its constituent fibers. This renders it suitable for knitting or weaving.
There are four different common types of silk thread produced this way, each by a slightly different method of throwing. Crepe is produced by twisting multiple threads together, and then twisting them a second time. Tram is produced similarly, but the silk threads are only twisted in one direction instead of two. Thrown singles are produced with just one thread rather than multiple. Like tram they are only twisted in one direction. Finally, organzine is produced by giving individual silk threads a twist before combining two of them and twisting them in the opposite direction.
Crepe thread is used for weaving wrinkly fabrics, tram thread is used for the weft part of the weaving process, thrown singles thread is used for sheer fabrics, and organzine thread is used for the warp part of the weaving process.
Raw silk still contains the binding agent sericin. Soap and boiling water are then used to remove this sericin. This leaves the silk as much as 30% lighter than the raw silk, as well as softer and more lustrous.
Though a kilometer of silk from each cocoon sounds like a great deal, in fact very little survives this process as usable silk. It typically takes about 2,500 silkworms to produce one pound of raw silk.
Filaments that cannot be used as silk can be salvaged and processed into a cheaper type of yarn called “spun silk.”
Alternatives to Silkworms For Cultivating Silk
Many other animal species produce silk. Silk is produced by many species of bees, wasps and ants, often for nest construction. Most famously, spiders and other arachnids use silk to spin their webs.
None of these other species have been used for commercial textile production, though research continues into whether any such alternative to the silkworm might be viable. Already the silk from some of these other animals has been used in weapons and optical instruments such as telescopes.
Weaving Silk Rugs
As noted above, silk is an animal fiber that is derived from the cocoons of silkworms. It is an extremely costly and luxurious material for textile and rug production. Cultivation of these fibers began in ancient China where it was a jealously guarded secret. Eventually its use spread to Persia and then to Byzantium and Europe.
The expense notwithstanding, silk rugs and or foundations, are not uncommon, although they tend to be high quality pieces in the tradition of court art.
Extremely luxurious nomadic carpet weaving have been known to use the fibers as a sign of class and significance. The attraction to these rugs resides in the fineness of its fibers which are remarkably soft, as well as in it’s luminous, reflective quality.
Because of this the effect of color on silk is far more intense and brilliant than the effect of the same dye on even the finest wool. These fibers when treated (see below) are much more delicate and less durable than wool.
Consequently, many less silk rugs are well preserved. This rarity, as well as the basic cost, places antique silk pieces among the most expensive rugs.
These fibers were bought and sold by their weight. As such, some traders would treat the fibers with metal. This metal treatment, increased the overall weight which resulted in more money for the dealer.
Unfortunately, the metal corrodes with time. This is what causes some antique carpets to “break”. So when buying these types of antique rugs, it is important that the piece be in excellent starting off condition – that is a great sign that the fibers have not been treated and should last for many generations to come.
To learn more about the rug weaving process, visit How Rugs & Carpets are Made
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