A Global Fabric: Silk, Luxury, and Innovation

Threads of Global Desire: Silk in the Pre-Modern World is the first volume in the Pasold Studies in Textile, Dress and Fashion History from the Pasold Research Fund. It is edited by Dagmar Schäfer (Director of Department 3 ‘Artefacts, Action, and Knowledge’ at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and Professor h.c. of the History of Technology at the Technical University, Berlin), Giorgio Riello (Professor of Global History and Culture at the University of Warwick) and Luca Molà (is Professor of Early Modern Europe: History of the Renaissance and the Mediterranean in a World Perspective at the European University Institute in Fiesole). They have kindly contributed the following as an introduction to the book’s theme of silk as a truly global product of great economic, cultural, technological and symbolic significance that stretched across time and continents.

The beautiful silk textiles that are now displayed in museums around the world underline the global importance of silk in pre-modern societies and its universal appeal as a symbol of status and wealth. As a rarity, with a high cost but unique material properties, silk triggered powerful reactions, enticing devotees and repelling critics. From its early start, the trade of silk textiles, whether for the elites or for people of more modest means, was the subject of debate and critique. Early Chinese sources delineate silk as a debauched and dissolute form of luxury. The mythical King Shang Tang is said to have succeeded in conquering the kingdom of Zhou only because the king’s concubines had been fascinated by the sound of high quality silks torn apart. On the other side of Eurasia, in Roman Italy, Emperor Diocletian in 301 CE specifically controlled the prices of raw silk, possibly from China. By this time silk had become an item donned by both men and women notwithstanding the fact in 16 CE the Senate had forbidden men from wearing this imported fabric. Silk, was considered—in the words of a historian of ancient times—‘an unambiguous marker of vice’. The opposition between public virtue and private luxury, commoners’ frugality and imperial debauchery remained a theme in Europe and China alike throughout early modernity and the wearing of silk was a frequently employed trope of moral decay. Eighteenth-century Chinese literati called to mind the fall of the king of Zhou, and European writers evoked the supreme Roman Emperor Tiberius who, fighting prodigality, ordered ‘that no silk dress should henceforth degrade a Roman citizen’.

Threads of Global Desire
Silk in the Pre-Modern World
Edited by Dagmar Schäfer, Giorgio Riello and Luca Molà

Between desire and aversion, silk triggered innovation. Spurred by the prospect of high profits, kings and merchants across cultures invested into the transmission and adaptation of sericulture and the development of processing techniques and designs. Heavily patterned satins or damasks woven in Florence and Genoese workshops, for instance, produced large profits in 1546 as they suited ‘the desire and taste of the French, that is, cloths that cost little and last even less, which is exactly what that nation wants, because it would get bored if a garment lasted too long’. Despite regional differences, the silk industry universally shared standards of quality, desiring high- quality silk textiles or accessories, produced from long even threads with soft, smooth surfaces comforting to wear and appealing to the eye. Clusters of technological expertise emerged that relied on complex market networks for raw material access and distribution. The complexity of woven product explains the creation of trans-regional networks of production. This differs considerably from cotton whose core region of production—the Indian subcontinent—retained its leadership for centuries and well into the period of European industrialisation. The long history of interchange and specializations and the necessity to remain connected to achieve the goodness of silk’s material qualities and workmanship may furthermore offer a reason why silk, although it always held a strong foothold in the territories we now call China, became a regionally more universal industry with high-quality production in different parts of the world. By 1600, several areas ranging from China to Japan as well as Iran and Western Europe excelled in the production of different types of products. There was no single silk producer of silk yarn or silken textiles as there were few markets that did not offer silks from all over the world. In production and consumption, silk was burgeoning as much as depending on its global links.

Subscribe to the Boydell & Brewer blog via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

* indicates required

Recent Posts