National Geographic : 1984 Jan
baffled by their failure to get a larger chunk of the silk-fabric market. "Tell us what are the new colors in America. We can provide any color at all," anxiously asked the man ager of the silk factory in Dandong. The problem is not just in the dyeing. China does not have the machinery to finish fabrics equal in quality to those of France or Italy-but it is gearing up to compete. In mid-1983 the U. S. Department of Commerce granted a Pennsylvania firm a li cense to export to China a $200,000 image processing system to be used in automating the looming and embroidery of silk and other fabrics. Four other systems await licenses. Still, it is Chinese yarn made into fabric in Italy that is revered by dress designers. From all over the world they buy fabrics from Italian silk mills. Some of these textiles are produced to the specifications of world renowned fashion designers like Emanuel Ungaro and Karl Lagerfeld, but more often designers choose from the Italian textile companies' own lines. Fabio Bellotti, who runs the Milan firm called Rainbow, showed me the graffiti print on silk he had made after riding the New York subway. Gerolamo Etro pulled from his pocket a crumpled advertisement ripped from a slick magazine. He would ask his artists to use these colors in a Hawaiian-style print. I traced the making of a silk tie from the Ratti factory outside Como, where the fab ric for eight million ties was made last year, to neighboring textile factories. I saw crafts manship and devotion in each of the 20 steps a tie demands. And I discovered why my husband's rep ties are so heavy; they are weighted by bathing the yarn in tin salts. In the city of Kiryu, Japan's Lyon, the most advanced technology is being applied to silk. Computer-driven looms can even duplicate ancient Japanese silks. "Don't you worry that you will be replaced by a com puter?" I asked Junichi Arai, the innovative Japanese textile designer who creates inge nious fabrics with fiber mixes and surface treatments. "The computer is my friend," he answered to my surprise. "Without the com puter I can imagine 10 to 20 designs. But with the computer, I can produce more than 200 designs in the same amount of time." Except during the war years the supply of and demand for silk have been fairly well balanced. Currently raw silk yarn is $13.60 per pound ($30 per kilogram), nearly 20 times the price of cotton. At the Benedictine monastery outside Bangalore, India, Father Anselm told me that raising silk had become more profitable than raising grapes. "If you lose one grape crop, you are lost for a year. But if you lose one sericulture crop, you can start another soon again," he said. 7 OMEN have always believed that there is no substitute for real silk for luxurious, lustrous dresses. Recently in a Washington, D. C., boutique, my eye caught a young woman modeling a royal blue silk gown. It remind ed me of what New York-based designer Oscar de la Renta had said: "Silk does for the body what diamonds do for the hand." The woman's crisp taffeta skirt rustled as she spun in front of a mirror. The sound echoed luxury, elegance, mys tery. But in my imagination I heard even more: the swishing of the wedding dress of Catherine the Great; the flapping of the heavy silk banners Pope Julius II gave to his Swiss regiments; the billowing silk-trimmed sails on the ship of Sigurd the Crusader, King of Norway, as he glided toward the Golden Horn and Constantinople in 1110. Silk has dressed crowned heads and glori ous palaces and added luster to pageantry through the ages. And all from the unassuming silkworm. I checked my own tiny colony of silkworms on my dining-room table. By now one of my 20 charges had started the long process. From minuscule caterpillar to the queen of fibers. That is the miracle of silk. O Armor-to-go, metal plates laced with silk cord telescoped into a carryingbox for 16th-centuryJapanesesamurai on campaign.In the West the textile allegedly helped routRoman legions thatwere surprisedand terrifiedwhen the Parthians suddenly unfurled massive silk banners at Carrhaein 53 B.C. But silk's most enduring conquesthas been the seduction of our hearts and enchantment of our senses. PHOTOGRAPHEDATTHE SMITHARTMUSEUM, SPRINGFIELD,MASS.