IASSRT Papers: In what form was Chinese silk transported to the Roman empire?

IASSRT Papers: In what form was Chinese silk transported to the Roman empire?

Following our recent post about the symposium ‘Reconnections along the Silk Road: Restoring and Reconstructing Textiles from Afar: 7th Symposium of the International Association for the Study of Silk Road Textiles (IASSRT)’, this is the third of a series of posts showcasing the papers most relevant to the Nara to Norwich project.

Following the abstracts of two papers on Silk Road textiles in Japan, we now look at silk as it moved westwards. This paper is by Hero Granger-Taylor, a specialist in the history and archaeology of textiles based in Britain and co-founder and tutor Early Textiles Study Group ‘Textile Structures’ course. She considers the hypotheses about in what form the Romans acquired silk.

In what form was Chinese silk transported to the Roman empire?

Hero Granger-Taylor

Textiles made from cultivated silk (Bombyx mori) have been found within the Roman empire dating from the 2nd century AD onwards. Among these there are examples of textiles evidently made in China. But textiles locally made out of imported Chinese fibre are more common. These locally-woven textiles are identifiable by their structure, their style of decoration and, when surviving as larger pieces, their large breadth: some examples can be seen to have been ‘woven to shape’.

Evidently the inhabitants of the Roman world valued silk highly as a material – perhaps at first particularly for its very long and comparatively strong fibres, allowing it to be used as very fine yarns. But, as time went on, its sheen and brightness also became important to them. 

Because the Romans themselves associated sewing with repairs, they would have found the narrow widths of Chinese silks textiles an obstacle to their use as clothing. And there is little evidence that they truly appreciated the colours and designs of Chinese textiles.

Chinese silk could not have reached the Roman world as cocoons: even if it had been possible to kill the larvae inside the cocoons so that adult moths did not break out during the journey, there is no evidence locally of the highly skilled occupation of unwinding cocoons. And skeins of yarn, ’wound’ but not yet twisted, would have been easily damaged and therefore also a risky commodity for the Silk Road traders. The most logical answer is that the silk arrived as bolts of plain undyed cloth, made of yarns that had not yet been degummed, and that the silk in these bolts was unravelled before being degummed and rewoven. This conclusion is supported by several passages in contemporary texts.