Saturday, 15 June 2013

silk road or it happened on the way to mulberry street

Although we did not seen much evidence of this native industry during our recent vacation to the Lombardy region (but it is surely there if one seeks it out and knows where to look), Como and its environs produce an astonishing quarter of the worldwide output of silk.

The top manufacturing country is Brazil, climates being similar and the sheltering cliffs, like this one from the Swiss side of Lake Lugano, evoke a feeling of being in the bay of Rio de Janeiro. Italy was a relative late-comer in the silk business, whose broader history spins intrigue and is the impetus for some unlikely developments. Though robust trade had existed for at least two centuries prior via the Silk Road from the Orient, the material was a costly and mysterious luxury, the process monopolised and kept secret by Chinese exporters.
 Not quite on a mission to save souls, two monks were sent to the Far East, charged by the French monarchy of finding out the secret and bringing back to Europe, in the mid fifteenth century, in what may be the earliest example of industrial espionage. Having learnt the process, the monks smuggled seeds of the mulberry tree and eggs of caterpillars in diplomatic pouches, messenger tubes of bamboo. Mulberry leaves were the exclusive diet of silk-worms, the juvenile form of the moth Bombyx mori who spin cocoons out of silk.
It's sad and unfair that these little hopeful caterpillars are boiled alive in the middle of their metamorphosis in order to harvest their weave and warp, but having mastered the cultivation and working the material, places like Lyon soon became very rich and influential for having broken the cartel. Without the zealous explosion in mills, producing ever more intricate and automated patterns, the industrial and modern computing may have never happened—the looms emerging as something programmable and Turing-complete with cards, instructions for producing designs. The rest of Europe was not content to let the French have all the profits and glory, however, and others learnt the process, including the former Italian and Venetian middle-men in the original and established trade process, sore at having their business suffer.
Prussia's Frederick the Great, whose alchemists are also credited with making the first china, porcelain, outside of China, wanted in on the game too and ordered the cultivation of mulberry trees (Maulbeerbäume) all over Germany—this is why the mulberry is not an exotic plant these days, as fodder for the little caterpillars. This legacy still exists today, and German silk-making, in the interim led to a successful early manned-flight by a certain tinkerer and aviator in Bavaria named Gustave Weißkopf, pre-dating more famous pioneers, with wings made of silk taut on a bamboo frame, intensive war-time production of parachutes for Fallschirmjäger, and a textile export for the DDR that was in demand and a source of pride. What an interesting chain of events the cocoons of a little bug, that is still an ugly duckling afterwards, brings together.