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History tutorial #108; Silk

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Commodities which are commonplace in the twenty-first century often have obscure and accidental origins.

For example, only a very small clique of reputable historians including GOF know that our peculiar human dependence upon cow’s milk can be traced back to a strange little man called Alvin the Inquisitive.

Alvin resided in the town of Saint Helier on the Channel Island of Jersey in 1031 AD where he was employed as a gardener and part-time scabbard oiler at one of the medieval castles.

Shortly before lunch time on a stinking hot day in June, instead of swaggering off down to the stream at the bottom of the hill for a drink, as was his normal practice, he instead just for the heck of it, decided to stick his head between the nearby enticing legs of a little yellow cow and suck on three teats to quench his prodigious thirst.

Alvin thoughtfully left the fourth and somewhat less attractive right rear teat for the now gobsmacked calf who was watching the entire episode from the shade of a gorse hedge.

Astonished co-workers attributed Alvin’s bizarre behaviour to his having been pottery-jug fed as an infant.

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Silk was similarly discovered by social accident.

Chinese Emperor Huang-ti (2640BC) was utterly fed up with watching his 14 year-old bride Hsi-Ling-Shih playing with her Barbi dolls and fawning over the latest teenage heartthrob Justhuang-biebi.
“Isn’t he like just totally cool and like REALLLLY gorgeous?”  swooned the besotted Hsi-Ling several times each day to the annoyance of her husband who she often disrespectfully referred to as “Old Huang-ker Emp”.

Huang-ti angrily responded that she should immediately grow up and perform some greater wifely functions, then sent her outside to find out what was chomping away at all the mulberry tree leaves in the Imperial garden.

It was then that the little Empress discovered all these pretty golden cocoons which she thought would be perfect for converting into nice pillows and handbags to accessorise her vast collection of Barbi dolls.  In order to mould them into the correct shapes, she dropped them all into some hot water whereupon the cocoons unexpectedly exploded into magical cobwebs of silk.

Hsi-Ling experimented by weaving the silk thread into beautiful cheongsam dresses and intricately fashioned underclothing including lacy brassieres for herself, although these bras remained substantially empty for two more years until she eventually grew her full womanly entitlement of perkiness with which to fill them.



Hsi-Ling’s discovery of silk eventually provided a financial windfall for China as many countries in the West clamoured to procure supplies of this unique and exotic new product.

In 1235BC following complaints from several Meditteranean customers who were suffering an embarrassing fungal itch during their hot summers, China produced the world’s first self-ventilating or “crotchless” silk knickers. Western society however, to it’s eternal shame some three millennia later, was to irrevocably pervert the innocence and functionality of these original Oriental garments.

The Chinese kept the silk manufacturing process a secret until the 6th century AD, all the while sending caravans laden with assorted silk products westwards to Persia and Damascus.

In 550 AD Byzantine Emperor Justinian 1 sent two Nestorian monks to China, where, at great risks to their lives, they snooped around until they discovered the secret of silk manufacture, then stole mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs, hiding them in hollowed-out walking sticks for the return journey.

This simple act of thievery by trusted chrome-domed monks spawned a burgeoning silk industry in Byzantium and triggered an epidemic of impious and illegal behaviour by both bald and hirsute men of religion which continues to this very day.

Italy had developed a major silk industry by the twelfth century, followed by France in the seventeenth.

Silkworm facts are rivettingly fascinating.

An acre of mulberry trees will support 100,000 caterpillars of the silkworm moth Bombyx mori.


One Kilogram of raw silk thread is 3000 kilometres long.

That’s enough to roll out in a direct line from GOF’s tropical paradise to the freezing “there’s-two-stinking-places-in-the-world-and-Melbourne’s-both-of-’em” on the southern extremity of the continent.

My vast following of readers in the entomological research facilities of the former Soviet Union will know that this also equates to the distance between Omsk and Olekminsk.

You and I could also stretch out our one kilogram of silk all the way from Louisiana to Maine except that the ten thousand west coast retirees mooching around in Winnebagos towing RV’s would keep getting in our way.

Is anybody still here?

No I didn’t think so.

What a mind-numbing and stultifying exercise this has been.


It’s enough to bore the silk britches off a hibernating three-toed sloth.