This Song dynasty painting showcases the process of silk harvesting, gathering, and production: Sericulture. This step by step illustration outlines the stages of producing silk in historical times. The first section of this painting shows women gathering the silkworms and mulberry leaves, and sorting them into trays. The next step, shown in the following section, has men preparing woven frames for the silkworms and leaves to be placed on. Here the silkworms will eat and grow, until they begin to pupate and finally form a cocoon around themselves. Once these cocoon grow to the appropriate size they are collected and weighted, as shown in the third section. Next is the important part, were the cocoons are turned into silk threads. To do this, the cocoons are soaked in boiling water, dissolving the gum that keeps the cocoon together. The cocoon then separates, and is unraveled into one long strand, as seen in section four. These strands are spun together to create a thicker silk thread and then spooled, with the finished product on display in section five. From here the silk spools are woven using a loom, as depicted in section six. From worm, to cocoon, and then finally gorgeous silk, this process has been passed down for many lifetimes, and will continue for many more to come.
This ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Yoshitora is another illustration depicting the sericulture process, but from the 19th century. Notice how a few of the steps from the Song dynasty painting are identifiable. We see women gathering the silkworms and mulberry leaves in the upper portion, and then sorting them and placing them into trays below. This print highlights the fact that sericulture is a process that has mostly stayed unchanged throughout the years.
Another Ukiyo-e print, this time by Chikanobu, depicts a woman weaving on a loom, with silk spools at her side. These two prints show that by the late 19th century, silk items, and thus their production, had become an everyday commodity. Whether or not this woman is weaving silk for herself or for a client is unknown, but the tapestry in the upper left-hand corner hints at the product being made. When the population and economy increased in the Edo period, a market for household decorations opened, and was easily filled with silk, still prized, but now more readily available and purchasable for the new middle class. This meant the silk industry in Japan also flourished at this time and continued into the Meiji period.
Written by Cassie Walker