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On the silk Road......

A number of years ago I travelled to India in search of vintage silk supplies from which to make nuno felted wraps and throws. I not only fell in love with sari silk, I fell in love with India. In addition to buying the less expensive saris - with a more open weave, which are the most perfect for felt-making - I also bought luxurious fabrics encrusted with jewels and gold and silver embellishments. I don’t have enough windows in my home, around which to drape 6m lengths of silk so many of my treasures are sadly packed away until days when I feel like an explosion of colour and the bags are burst open for a happy hour or two immersed in fabulous fabrics.

Only since the emergence of the ‘silk road’ during the last 2 millennia or so have any countries outside China been making silk. For three thousand years before this, China kept silk production a great secret, with ancient scholars and historians believing that it was woven from tree leaves or extracted from soils in the Far East.

Legend has it that the discovery of silk was an accident.... Empress Leizu was having tea one day when a silk worm's cocoon fell into her cup. In her attempt to get it out, the thread of the cocoon began to unravel and she thought of weaving the thread. Her husband, the Yellow Emperor, encouraged her to study the life of silk worm, and so she learned the art of raising silk worms, teaching her entourage as well and thus began the advent of the silk industry. The genuine discovery of sericulture is lost in time but don’t you this legend is delightful?

Moving on…… With the Silk Road expanding (many routes actually) another city which developed silk making was Margilan in Uzbekistan. The town is home to Uzbekistan’s largest traditional silk factory which employs over 2,000 workers, to make silk in the traditional way, producing about 250,000 square metres of premium silk cloth annually. The neighbouring, and more automated, Margilan Silk Factory employs 15,000 workers using modern machinery, and produces some 22 million square meters per year.

Much of the silk that is woven in Margilan is a very dense and brightly patterned satin weave that is used for garments and wall hangings and called ‘Khan-atlas’ or Khan's Silk.

Another legend says that the “khan-atlas” was created by a poor weaver in ancient Margilan. The ruler (“Khan”) of Margilan at the time wanted to take a fifth wife and chose the beautiful daughter of the poor weaver. Desperate to save his daughter from the forced marriage, the weaver begged the ruler to change his mind. Khan told him that he could grant his wish only if the weaver would present him with something so extraordinary that would make him forget the beauty of his daughter.

The devastated weaver left the palace and went to sit on a canal bank without a clue how to complete the task. As he looked at the flowing water the sun came out and reflected the blue sky, snow white clouds and the blossom trees along the bank. Filled with inspiration the weaver jumped to his feet and ran to his workshop.

The next morning he presented Khan with the most beautiful silk fabric Margilan has ever seen — it was light like a breeze, soft like a cloud and with such beautiful rainbow colours that Khan cancelled the wedding as he had never seen anything so stunning.

Khan Atlas silk is unfortunately unsuitable for nuno felting as it has a very dense weave and wool fibres cannot migrate through and fuse with the fabric. The silk weavers of Margilan however, also make a very open weave silk fabric that was originally used to preserve and repair antique icons and other art works. A contemporary Russian feltmaker from Kazakhstan saw this fabric and realized its potential for use in feltmaking. Margilan ‘rarified’ silk is now used to add strength and a beautiful lustre to felt wraps and other garments. It is the only silk you cannot ‘rip’, but keeps its sheen after dyeing to add a luxurious drape to nuno-felted items.

I’m very excited to offer fabulous fine felted wraps and scarves with Margilan silk on one side and exotic fibres on the other for purchase. They are completely unique, not only in their hand-dyed colour but also in their individual embellishments. If you can’t see a colour available in my gallery to suit you please let me know and I’ll make something especailly for you.

In the meantime, I think I need a trip to Uzbekistan…….

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