Untangling the history of the silk industry in Andalucia
By Nick Nutter | Updated 8 Sep 2022 | Andalucia | History | Login to add to YOUR Favourites or Read Later
Silk workers cottage - Valencia Museum of Silk
Many people have heard of the ‘Silk Road’, the trading network that linked China with the Middle East and from there, Europe and North Africa. This 6,400 kilometre route opened in 130 BC when the Han dynasty of China opened up trade with the world outside China and lasted until 1453 AD when the Ottoman Empire closed off trade with Europe. Silk was just one of many exotic products that made its way to the elite members of society in Europe, particularly those in the area occupied by the Roman Empire.
Silk fabrics - Valencia Museum of Silk
The manufacture of silk started between 3000 BC and 4000 BC in China and the processes involved in the manufacture of silk were a closely guarded secret for thousands of years. Secrets have a way of escaping and by 300 AD Japan was also producing silk and in 522 AD, the Byzantines managed to acquire some silkworm eggs and start making silk in their Empire that, at the time, extended around the Mediterranean, including Hispania, southern Spain, although the 6th century Byzantine silk industry was concentrated around their capital city, Constantinople and never made it as far as Andalucia.
White Mulberry Tree
The ‘silk secrets’ were also picked up at the same time by Arabs in the Middle East, probably through those involved in trade along the Silk Road, and they passed into the hands of the first Islamic caliphates and dynasties after 622 AD. It is via the Muslim route that the silk industry arrived in Andalucia.
Vestment in silk - Valencia Museum of Silk
There is a charming legend that silk was discovered by a Chinese princess, Xi Lingshi, who was sitting beneath a mulberry tree delicately sipping tea from a cup. A silkworm cocoon fell from the tree into her cup and started to unravel – the first silk thread. A silkworm cocoon can consist of between 1,000 and 1,500 metres of thread.
Silkworm Cocoons - Valencia Museum of Silk
The process of silk production is known as sericulture and starts with the silkworm, a flightless moth. It lays up to 500 eggs in five days and then dies.
Silk Loom - Valencia Museum of Silk
The eggs are kept at a temperature between 18 and 25 degrees for between 7 and 21 days after which the small worm appears. They are fed on leaves from the Mulberry tree for about one month during which time they increase in size 10,000 times.
The silkworm has a huge appetite, to produce 1 kilogram of silk, 104 kilogram of mulberry leaves are eaten by 3000 silkworms.
There are two types of Mulberry, white and black. Silkworms prefer the leaves from the white mulberry that can be distinguished from the black by the lack of hairs on the lower leaf surface. The white mulberry originates in the Far East whilst the black originates in the Middle East.
As an aside. Silk is worth more than gold by weight and in 1609, James I of England and VI of Scotland decided to establish a silk industry in his realm. His horticultural advisor purchased the seeds of the black mulberry. The silk eventually produced was coarser and of lesser quality than silk produced in Europe. This ‘mistake’ is often given as the reason for the demise of the English silk industry; however, the black mulberry will tolerate wetter and cooler conditions than the white so perhaps was better suited to the climate in England and Scotland. The fruit from the black mulberry is also juicier and tastier than that from the white.
Once the silkworm moths are well fed and bursting with energy, they spend three or four days spinning their cocoon. A single silkworm can produce up to 15 metres of filament in a minute. After another nine days, the cocoons are ready for processing.
The cocoons are sorted with the smaller cocoons being reserved to produce the next generation of silkworms.
The larger cocoons are heated quickly to kill the larva within and remove about 60% of the water in the cocoon. The cocoons can then be stored and transported to wherever the silk is to be produced. There the cocoons are dipped into hot water that loosens the filaments. The filaments from between five and eight cocoons are spun together to make silk yarn. It takes roughly 5000 cocoons to make a pure silk kimono.
The smaller cocoons hatch out into male or female flightless moths after 10 to 28 days. The males actively seek the females to mate and the cycle begins anew.
From a material point of view, the main benefit of silk over other materials such as cotton, is that it ‘takes’ dye very well allowing for a huge range of vivid colours.
Silk is also inherently fire retardant so if burnt it will curl away from the flame and extinguish itself.
Although it may not look it, silk yarn is stronger than a steel wire of the same diameter.
The secrets of silk arrived in al-Andalus with the Muslim invasion in 711 AD but it was to be another two hundred years before the first state run textile workshops called tiraz, were established alongside the mosque in Cordoba in 961 AD by Abd-er-Rahman II. Silk manufacturing centres followed in Granada, Málaga and Almería. The Muslims developed a horizontal loom that allowed high quality silk to be manufactured in industrial quantities. Highly skilled craftsmen designed sumptuous garments and accessories that were desired by the caliphs and emirs throughout the Muslim world and by the elites in societies all over Europe. Silk was often given as a gift to foreign delegations to al-Andalus. Silk from the tiraz at Granada was particularly prized. Quality was controlled through the alhóndigas, in effect warehouses for the silk, where it was stored before being sold in the alcaicerías or wholesale market.
One of the most important markets for silk from al-Andalus was the Genoese merchants. They valued the silk to such an extent that they named one of the markets in Nasrid Granada, the “Alhóndiga of the Genoese”. In the rest of alcaicerías of the kingdom of Granada that included Almería and Málaga, the Genoese also bought silk to sell later in the European ports of the Mediterranean, Flanders and England. Interestingly, some of the raw silk was exported from the Kingdom of Granada into the neighbouring Christian Valencia region that had been reconquered in 1238. Valencia also developed a thriving silk industry and during the late 14th century, began planting huge areas with mulberry trees with seed supplied by the same Genoese merchants.
Merchants from all over the known world travelled to al-Andalus to purchase silk that soon gained a reputation of being the finest silk available.
Silk from Granada was considered the finest and this was due to the mulberry trees that were grown in the Alpujara region notably around the villages of Cástaras, Trevélez, Pitres, Pórtugos, Juviles, Valor and Ugíjar. The trees flourished in the Alpujara climate.
In Nasrid times the whole region was a forest of mulberry trees. The black mulberry was suppressed, and laws were introduced to prevent the use of the ‘tangle’, the inevitable bunch of entangled filaments left after the quality yarn had been spun that could be roughly spun into inferior yarn.
The silk industry produced a new type of society, both rural and urban. In many areas, such as the Alpujaras, entire villages depended on the silk industry. Those villages produced the yarn that went to the tiraz and for many people it was a lucrative income. The wealth of a village was calculated by the number of Mulberry trees or kilos of silk produced each season. The manufacture and sale of the silk fabric made many manufacturers and merchants extremely wealthy. Within the cities, many streets still have names relating to their importance including my favourite in Granada, Cuesta de Maraña (Tangle Hill), where no doubt you could illegally sell your waste tangles to make an inferior yarn.
By the time of the reconquest of Granada in 1492, silk was one of the main economic resources for the Kingdom of Granada and a large proportion of the population, rural and urban, made their living from the industry. In the villages, each family could easily collect 40,000 cocoons. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Casa de la Seda was established to certify the quality of the silk produced.
Silk was used to make different types of luxury fabrics such as velvet, taffeta, damask, brocade, and above all satin, which had such a quality that it even exceeded the satins produced in the East. The skills required to make velvets and satins actually came from the Genoese whose traders had been distributing silk from al-Andalus for centuries. Genose craftsmen, skilled in weaving silk, started arriving in Andalucia during the 15th century.
The last third of the 15th century was the crest of the wave for the silk industry, especially after 1465 when laws were implemented to regulate the craft of weaving silk veils and, after 1479, velvet.
These craftsmen made unique fabrics of extraordinary beauty and design and embroideries interspersed with silver and gold thread that were the epitome of luxury in Mediaeval courts throughout Europe. The church also provided a lucrative market for these goods, the fabric being used to deck reliquaries and for opulent vestments.
By the end of the 15th century, the silk industry was largely controlled by the Muslim labourers, the Genoese craftsmen and the Jewish financiers and distributors. The silk industry started to decline soon after the conquest of the Kingdom of Granada in 1492, when first the Jews, and then the Muslim communities were oppressed and expelled from Andalucia. Some of the slack was taken up by Moriscos (the descendants of the Muslim population who had been converted to Christianity) who continued to cultivate the mulberry trees and harvest the silkworm cocoons in the villages.
Then, in 1609, Philip III of Spain decreed that the Moriscos should be expelled from Spain. Whether he realised that Moriscos were the mainstay of the silk industry or not is debateable, he wasn’t the brightest spark in the fire being described by various historians as an "undistinguished and insignificant man," a "miserable monarch," and a "pallid, anonymous creature, whose only virtue appeared to reside in a total absence of vice”. As the Morisco labour force disappeared so too did the mulberry trees, there was nobody left to nurture them. Many were cut down for firewood.
China and Japan rapidly stepped in to fill the still demanding market.
By the end of the 18th century the silk industry had all but disappeared from Andalucia. There have been sporadic attempts by independent entrepreneurs during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to re-introduce the silkworm to Andalucia but with little success. Today the silk industry in Andalucia is no more.
Sadly, the silk industry in Andalucia has gone but we did find a wonderful Silk Museum in the city of Valencia that started me off on my investigation into the silk industry in Andalucia.