A long time ago—the story goes—the Chinese Princess Lei Zu, age 14, was sipping tea in her royal garden when a cocoon dropped from a tree into her teacup. Annoyed, she fished it out. But the hot tea had begun to unravel a fiber from the cocoon. Lei Zu peered at the loose filament. She pinched between her damp fingers a thread that would change the world: silk.
“We must find the loose ends and unravel them,” says Inoyatkhan Okhunova, a silk maker who has worked for more than 30 years at the Yodgorlik silk mill, in Margilan, Uzbekistan. “It is best not to break them. This takes practice.”
To do this, Okhunova boils the cocoons in large, dented tin basins of soapy water. The individual silk fibers shine in the steamy workshop light like spider webbing. A colleague spins them—in braids of five, seven, ten—onto a bobbin. This is the primordial thread.
This is just the beginning.