Silk was first developed in early China, possibly as early as 6000 B.C. and definitely by 3000 B.C. Though first reserved for the Emperors of China, its use spread gradually through Chinese culture both geographically and socially. From there, silken garments began to reach regions throughout Asia. Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants, because of its texture and lustre. Because of the high demand for the fabric, silk was one of the staples of international trade prior to industrialization.
Perhaps the first evidence of the silk trade is that of an Egyptian mummy of 1070 B.C. In subsequent centuries, the silk trade reached as far as Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and North Africa with traders. So extensive was this trade that the major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia was known as the Silk Road.
The Emperors of China strove to keep the knowledge of sericulture secret from other nations, in order to maintain the Chinese monopoly on its production. This effort at secrecy had mixed success. Sericulture reached Korea around 200 B.C. with Chinese settlers; by 300 A.D. the practice had been established in India. Although the Roman Empire knew of and traded in silk, the secret was only to reach Europe around A.D. 550, via the Empire of Byzantium.
See also spider silk.