Silkworms’ main product, silk, has had a tumultuous past, being the object of perhaps the longest running monopoly in history. While silk production started in China around 3500 BCE, it wasn’t until 200 BCE in Korea that another culture was able to produce silk. The secret of how to produce silk was closely guarded from western emissaries, with their belongings being thoroughly searched before leaving China. Eventually the Chinese monopoly on the silk trade to Europe was broken around 550 AD by Byzantine missionaries, who smuggled larvae inside hollow walking sticks.
Before silk came to Europe, it was one of the primary goods traded along the silk road, an overland trade route across Eurasia.
During the Han Dynasty, trade with the Roman Empire included silk along with other goods such as paper and “china” pottery. These trade routes passed along not only goods, but also ideas and strategic inventions like gunpowder. Without the silk trade, cross-cultural exchange between the East and West across Eurasia would have been much smaller.
Silk had become an industrial good by the beginning of WWII, being used not only in clothing, but also for bicycle tires, artillery gunpowder bags, and parachutes. The majority of America’s silk prior to WWII was imported from East Asia, and all Pacific trade suffered during the war. The demand for silk-substitutes led to the development of artificial fibres like nylon, which soon moved from being expensive substitutes to the norm. Silk also served a vital service during 20th century wars as thread for surgical sutures.
In modern times, silk is still a luxury cloth, but silkworms serve a new human need. As one of the few domesticated lepidoptera, silkworms are the insect equivalent of white mice, being used in genetic experimentation. This experimentation has led to the possibility of new goods being derived from silkworms. Kraig Biocraft Laboratories has been researching the possibility of genetically engineering silkworms to produce a silkworm silk-spider silk hybrid fiber. The project is beginning to reach the point of being economically viable, and has produced hybrid silk, essentially pure spider silk, and a silk designed to exceed the limitations of spider silk.