What is Silk? Origin, How its is Made, Types & Benefits

Hollie Shirley / Hair & Skincare Editor

Everything there is to know about silk and why we love it.

History of silk fabric

For over 5000 years silk has been referred to the Queen of Textiles. It is the ultimate luxurious fabric, both in look and feel. To quote Oscar de la Renta, “Silk does for the body what diamonds do for the hand.”

According to Chinese history, a Chinese empress watched a silkworm spinning its cocoon while on her morning walk through the royal gardens. She dreamt of clothing herself entirely with fabric made only from these fine, shimmering threads. Hsi-Ling-Shi is credited with both introducing sericulture and inventing the loom upon which silk is woven. Not confined to clothing, silk was also used for a number of other applications, including writing, and the colour of silk worn was an important guide of social class during the Tang dynasty.


How is silk made into a fabric?

Silk is the fine thread with which a silkworm spins its cocoon. The silkworm pupates in its cocoon and emerges 20 days later as a moth. The fibres are then wound on a reel into a thread, which contains approximately 48 silk filaments. The thread which is produced by the spinning glands of the silkworm is the finest and strongest natural fibre in the world.

Sericulture is the cultivation of silkworms to produce and manufacture silk. It is an important part of Chinese heritage and dates back to around 3000 BC.

Silk is a protein fibre, meaning that is chemically quite similar to human skin. Because of this, silk is an ideal “second skin”. Once filaments are made of silk, they can have great strength and can measure from 500 to 1500 m in length, which is quite substantial given the source. The actual form of the woven silk is a triangular structure. Its absorbency is good, it dyes well, and is produced in over 20 countries. These include the major producers, such as Asia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Egypt, and Madagascar.


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How many types of silk are there?

Mulberry Silk

The silk that we use in all our products is Mulberry silk. it is the highest quality silk available comes from silkworms produced from the Bombyx mori moth. They’re fed an exclusive diet of mulberry leaves, which is why the luxurious fabric is known as mulberry silk. Mulberry silk forms around 90% of all silk supply in the world.

Other silks include:

Tussar (Indian Tussar silkworm),

Eri (Castor silkworm, native to Japan, China and Thailand),

Muga (Indian Muga silkworm),

Spider (Madagascan spiders),

Cricula (Philippines, India and Indonesian Crucula silkworm),

Fagara (Attacus atlas silkworm, Sudan and China),

Anaphe ( Thaumetopoeidae silkworm, South Africa).


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What is momme?

Mommes (mm), are the unit traditionally used to measure the quality of silk fabrics. One momme = 4.340 grams per square meter.

A momme weight of 12-19 is considered good quality with those in the range of 16-19 being very high quality. Cheap silk sheets almost always have a low momme weight because physically less silk has been used to make them. Anything lower than 12 momme feels lightweight and flimsy, and not particularly smooth or luxurious. What’s more, it tears easily, is difficult to wash and doesn’t last as long as those that are heavier.

Gauze – 3 to 5 momme weight

Chiffon – 6 to 8 momme weight

Habutai – 5 to 16 momme weight

Charmeuse – 16 to 30 momme weight


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Environmental Factors

As silk is a by-product of an animal, it is not vegan. However, it has a much lower carbon footprint compared to synthetic fibres. The conventional method of producing synthetic fibres is far from green due to the fact they are derived from petrochemicals which are not renewable; they are energy-intensive, do not biodegrade and are not easy to recycle. Silk, on the other hand, is a biodegradable, compostable material. Compared to cotton, for example, there is far less impact on the land, water and air, and it doesn’t involve the use of pesticides.


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Silk Benefits

Silk as a fibre is hypoallergenic, meaning that those who suffer from allergies and skin conditions will find it easier to get a good nights rest as apposed to with regular cotton bedlinen. The sericin residue is a natural repellent that keeps bacteria, dust mites and moulds out and unable to breed.

Due to the structure of the strands, silk is a breathable material. It is hollow through the centre of the fibre, meaning air can pass through it. This leads to a cooler more comfortable sleep with fewer sweats, unlike its satin counterparts. Read more about the difference between satin and silk.

Silk thread, although delicate, is in fact incredibly strong, but it loses up to 20% of its strength when wet and the threads can become compromised- if it is elongated even a small amount, it remains stretched. It can also be weakened if exposed to too much sunlight. Read more about how to care for silk products.

Silk helps keep moisture close to your skin and will help your skin stay more hydrated than many fabrics on the market. Sleeping on silk is a great option for helping your skin maintain its natural moisture. It holds a whole host of hair and skin benefits due to its smoothness and moisture-wicking properties.

Also read: Benefits of sleeping on silk


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Hollie Shirley
Hair & Skincare Editor

Hollie Shirley is SILKUP’s hair and skincare editor. She’s obsessed with all things hair care and results-driven skincare, that is kind to the environment and your wallet. She has a weakness for limited edition eyeshadows and is always testing out the newest and greatest deep conditioners. Hollie has a passion for hair and is studying Trichology, working towards becoming a Member of the Association of Registered Trichologists.