National Geographic : 1984 Jan
consternation, I tried my hand at raising silkworms on the dining-room table. It is a tricky business. Despite great care, only half of the eggs hatched. I wondered how those pilfered eggs could have survived a two-year trip in a hollow cane. Harvard entomologist Carroll Williams thinks they could have: "If the canes were kept damp so the eggs didn't dry out, and if it never was cold enough to stimulate hatch ing, they could have made it." In the Middle Ages silk was woven into every conquest and trade. The rush of Islam carried silk from the Middle East across North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. The crusaders gave relics wrapped in fabulous silks to the church. Venetians not only trad ed heavily but also imported silk growers and weavers to help pioneer their own silk industry. By the 13th century Italy had be come the silk center of the West, and the Ital ian silk industry was amassing the riches that helped finance the Italian Renaissance. The Duchess of Milan, Beatrice d'Este Sforza, wrote a friend in 1493 that she was having dresses embroidered with silk in pat terns that had been designed by Leonardo da Vinci for frescoes and architecture. To day Emilio Pucci, who brought glory to Ital ian silks in the 1950s with brightly colored silk knits, produces just a few inches of fab ric a day on wooden looms dating from about 1500. Some of the most beautiful old Italian silk vestments are still used in churches in small towns like Gandino, near Bergamo, where the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta has more than 350 pieces from the 15th to the More than just another pretty fiber, silk's warmth, strength,and luster thrust it into new roles, in addition to the time-honoredones. A 1,700-year-old traditionis continued at the Beijing Silk Flower Factory,where petals (left) awaittransformationinto blooms destinedfor the United States and Europe. Inanewtwisttoanold fiber, silk batting,held by DanO'Leary of Sun Silk Company in Lowell, Massachusetts (above right),fills ski jackets, comforters, and sleeping bags. The materialis 20 percent warmerthan down, yet about half its price. The front-running favorite of professional bicycle racers,silk tires, handmade by the Wolber Tire Company in Soissons, France(above, far right), are prizedfor theirsuperior tractionand ride.