Silk: A History in Three Metamorphoses by Aarathi Prasad - review by Lucy Lethbridge

Lucy Lethbridge

From Moth to Cloth

Silk: A History in Three Metamorphoses

By

William Collins 368pp £22
 

Bioarchaeologist Aarathi Prasad’s latest book is about one of the most extraordinary natural phenomena ever to have been exploited by man. Soft yet strong, delicate yet robust, the protein filaments of the silk moth’s cocoon have been spun into fabric for millennia. Prasad dates the first evidence of silk weaving to around 4000 BC, in the early part of the Neolithic period, when it was practised by farmers in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in China. Fragments of silk have been found in ancient burial sites all over India, Central Asia and Europe, little scraps that tell of centuries of deftness and skill. Extracting silk fibre is an unpleasant process for the moth larvae, whose cocoons must be boiled or steamed to release the strands, but the material that results is a miracle of both nature and dogged human ingenuity.

Prasad starts in the lepidoptera collection of London’s National History Museum, where eighty thousand drawers contain examples of 157,000 species of butterflies and moths. Holometabolous insects – those that change form completely between embryo and adult – are the product of more than 200 million years of evolution and now make up 60 per cent of all living organisms. The moth most commonly farmed for silk was once the one categorised by Linnaeus as Bombyx mori, which feeds on mulberry trees, but when, thanks to inbreeding and domestication, this species became sluggish and unproductive, it was widely replaced by the tasar moth, whose silk is slightly textured.

Prasad moves, more or less chronologically, through the history of human silk production, following the trail of those who have studied and marvelled at silk moths, experimented with their cultivation and devised new uses for a material that feels light as breath yet is, by weight, stronger than

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