The man places the oval white bud in the centre of my palm. I can barely feel it’s there, it’s so light. It rolls over and the light shafting through the door illuminates the finest of fibres fraying from its edges. It looks so fragile, and yet its power was immense. Who knew a caterpillar’s cocoon could change the world?
Legend has it the lustrous thread of the silk worm was discovered in China around 2,700 BC by the emperor’s wife, Lei-tzu. She was in her garden, drinking tea in the shade of a mulberry tree, so it goes, when a silkworm cocoon fell from the branches into her cup. Fishing it out, she pulled on one of the loose threads and watched in astonishment as it unraveled. Surprised by its strength and softness, she constructed a loom and wove it into a fine fabric. On inspecting its richness, Lei-tzu ordered a grove of mulberry trees be planted to feed the silkworms, and sericulture was born. The emperor’s wife came to be worshipped as the ‘Goddess of Silk’ and China kept its production a closely guarded secret for 3,000 years, with anyone who revealed it being put to death.
Silk was used for prestigious banners and clothing. Indeed, when we visited the Wei-Jin Tombs, near Jiayuguan, which date from AD 220-420 and contain the remains of wealthy nobles, our torches picked out intricate depictions of silk cocoons and bolts of silk fabric daubed onto the brickwork, alongside a finely rendered jewellery box.
And yet the white bud I’m holding comes from the Yodgorlik Silk Factory, in the fertile Fergana district of Uzbekistan. How did the secret slip into Central Asia? It’s claimed a Chinese princess, betrothed to the King of Khotan, was asked to hide silkworms and mulberry seeds in her headdress and smuggle them across the border, as part of her dowry. Others believe two Nestorian monks, sent by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, concealed the precious cargo inside their walking canes all the way to Constantinople. Whatever the truth, China’s monopoly came to an end and the lustrous fabric became the engine of the Silk Road from 200 BC to AD 1450, being traded for everything from jade to slaves and weapons. Six metres could buy a horse.
Everyone clamoured to attain the soft cloth: from the merchants, depicted on the murals at Afrosiab, in Samarkand, to King James I, who order a grove of mulberry trees to be planted in the grounds of St James’s Palace, so England’s silk production might rival that of France and Italy. Its trade reshaped known horizons and is vital to the history of world as we know it.
Today, Yodgorlik is the last traditional silk factory left in Central Asia. The silkworms fattened here on mulberry leaves never see a tree, yet the women here still colour the cloth with dyes made from indigo, onion skin, pomegranate and boiled walnut husk. They work the clackety-clack looms just as Lei-tzu once did. A staggering 50,000 cocoons are required to produce a single kilo of thread.
Before leaving, I watch one of the women reaching into a cauldron where the cocoons bubble like quails eggs in the boiling water. With one hand she ensnares a thread from two of them and twines them together; with the other she fishes out the small brown carcasses of the boiled worms and discards them into a nearby tin bowl. Like the millions before them, their lives were short. But for nearly 2,000 years, they had the world on a string.