Silk – A History in Three Metamorphoses

Silk – Aarathi Prasad

I bought this book solely for the cover. I thought it might be a history of the world as explained by silk production and distribution, but it is not that at all. It is about the creatures that make silk; silkworms, molluscs and spiders.

There is not just one story of silk. In silk is science, history and mythology. In silk is the future.

Aarathi Prasad’s Silk is a gorgeous new history weaving together the story of a unique material that has fascinated the world for millennia.

Through the scientists who have studied silk, and the biology of the animals from which it has been drawn, Prasad explores the global history, natural history, and future of a unique material that has fascinated the world for millennia.

For silk, prized for its lightness, luminosity, and beauty is also one of the strongest biological materials ever known. More than a century ago, it was used to make the first bulletproof vest, and yet science has barely even begun to tap its potential. As the technologies it has inspired – from sutures to pharmaceuticals, replacement body parts to holograms – continue to be developed in laboratories around the world, they are now also beginning to offer a desperately needed, sustainable alternative to the plastics choking our planet.

Prasad’s Silk is a cultural and biological history from the origins and ancient routes of silk to the biologists who learned the secrets of silk-producing animals, manipulating the habitats and physiologies of moths, spiders and molluscs. Because there is more than one silk, there is more than one story of silk. More than one road, more than one people who discovered it, and wove its threads.

From the moths of China, Indonesia and India to the spiders of South America and Madagascar, to the silk-producing molluscs of the Mediterranean, Silk is a book rich in the passionate connections made by women and men of science to the diversity of the animal world. It is an intoxicating mix of biography, intellectual history and science writing that brings to life the human obsession with silk.

I found it fascinating. I had no idea that there was more than one type of silkworm – India has several different types and a thriving silk industry, which is as old as the chinese silk industry. And the sea creatures that make silk! Although, they are now almost extinct after several catastrophic events. And finally, the spiders. Who knew spiders could be ‘silked’ and that their silk is amazing – strong and thin with anti-bacterial properties? And unlike both silkworms and molluscs, the spider doesn’t need to die to harvest the silk.

Silk might be the miracle we need to save the world. It can be used instead of plastic. Although no one has yet been able to make farming spider silk commercially viable. One experiment involved putting spider DNA into goats and harvesting silk protein from the milk. However, they couldn’t turn the silk protein into silk thread. Putting spider DNA into silkworms was much more successful, but still not ideal.

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