- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 24, 2002

Silk has been called the cloth of kings, yet it is born from a lowly worm. The "Secrets of Silk" exhibition at the Textile Museum shows how the tiny Bombyx mori silkworms make cocoons for their change from caterpillars to moths, then produce two fine threads of silk from glands on either side of their heads. Astonishingly enough, the threads can be more than a mile long.
The exhibit also displays 24 fine silk pieces from as early as the 16th century to modern times. It presents work as different as an intricately embroidered, 19th-century Japanese "Furisode" (kimono) and 17th-century Indian carpet fragments of the Mughal period.
The museum organized "Secrets of Silk" as part of this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival dedicated to "The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust" and is a pleasant reminder of that very special event. Silk has always been associated with the romanticized "Silk Road" that stretched across Central Asia from China to Rome.
Legend has it that Chinese Empress Hsi Ling-shi discovered silk when a silkworm cocoon fell into her tea and unraveled. In the late second-century B.C., Emperor Wu-ti sent an agent to explore the lands west of China. The agent managed to reach Afghanistan, and historians regard his trip as one of the great historic events of early times.
The late second-century B.C. date for initial travel along the Silk Road was accepted for centuries. Now, recent finds of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy from 1000 B.C. long before what was regarded as regular traffic on the route figures in exciting new research that places human activity along the road much earlier.
Although "Secrets of Silk" is clearly an educational exhibit, the museum weaves the story of silk making and use in clearly understood and handsome ways. In fact, such gorgeous textiles as an Ottoman Empire religious mantle of crescent designs ("Silk Cope," Istanbul, late 16th century) make visitors all the more eager to find out more about those silk-producing critters.
Four 20th-century Japanese woodblock prints struck after prints by Prince Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) show women tending to the caterpillars. The women harvest leaves from mulberry trees for them to eat, as they must be fed five to 10 times a day during their monthlong larval stage. Another print shows women placing silkworms on trays for spinning the cocoons. Then they unwind the long silk filaments from the cocoon in a process called reeling.
The "Furisode" placed nearby shows fascinating Japanese advances in texturing techniques by the late 19th century. The exhibit label tells visitors that artists twisted silk in different ways to create different textures. The basic fabric is a silk crepe with untwisted warps (warps are vertical threads on the loom) and tightly twisted wefts (threads artists put through the warps horizontally).
Glistening silk-embroidered stitches define stylized darting cranes, clumped pine trees, barren rocks, prancing roosters and forked autumn leaves. Untwisted and tightly twisted silk threads were used for the needlework, adding to the texture of the ground, or basic fabric. Micrographs placed nearby show the textures in magnified detail.
Turquoises that melt into deep blue in the kimono show the extraordinary effects possible in the dyeing process. The filaments, or threads, a silkworm produces are of a protein called fibroin. Protein fibers bond easily with dye molecules when they interact chemically.
The star of the exhibit is a large Chinese "Hanging" of a dragon ferociously clawing the elements. This late 19th-century Qing dynasty tapestry emblazoned with a dragon (the emblem of the emperor) was woven by the imperial workshops for court rituals.
Artists embroidered its glistening lemon yellow ground with red and blue threads and metallic-wrapped accents. The very smooth surfaces of silk ensure its special sheen and luster.
Another work exploring silk's distinct luster is an exquisite, early 20th-century, golden "Headcloth" from Pakistan. The Pakistanis aligned long silk embroidery stitches in both vertical and horizontal directions, making the single gold color appear as two different shades. The exhibit label recommends that visitors walk around the piece to view it from different angles.
There is also cloth from the Western Hemisphere. The "Huipil" (blouse) from Oaxaca, Mexico (early 20th century) was made of spun silk and is less shiny than reeled silk. The Mexicans hand-spun both the silk and cotton of the huipil with the same kind of spindle.
The Spanish introduced Bombyx mori silkworms into Oaxaca for local use, but the technique is different from the usual. Mexican have the silkworms hatch from their cocoons. The worms fracture the filaments and make reeling impossible.
Colorful red-and-white stylized birds on red stripes form a rectilinear pattern on a dramatic black background. Unfortunately, the exhibit labels tell visitors nothing about the symbolism of the birds. The museum does not explain that the "Cope" from Istanbul is an ecclesiastical mantle usually worn by prelates in religious processions. The labels do not spell out the meaning of the cranes, rocks and pines in the "Furisode" or that its asymmetric design is typically Japanese.
Explanations of weaving techniques of "weft" and "warp" would have been useful.
Still, this exhibition of 24 of the Textile Museum's finest silks from around the world is handsome and informative. Don't miss it.

WHAT: "Secrets of Silk"
WHERE: Collections Gallery, Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW
Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m., through Jan. 5
Free with a suggested donation of $5

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