Cocoon of Days

Cocoon of Days

Paul Salopek meets some of the last traditional makers of silk in Uzbekistan. He shares the history of silk cultivation and the immense skill needed to create silk fabric.


5 - 12


English Language Arts, Social Studies, Geography, Anthropology, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek


Walking to the last silk-making town in Uzbekistan

“You know how silk got discovered, right?” says Aziz Khalmuradov.

Khalmuradov is my walking guide on the ancient trade routes known as the Silk Roads in Central Asia. He is a sturdy man with sad eyes and a deep knowledge of folklore. Aziz and I have traveled together for many months. We have walked more than a thousand miles through the country of Uzbekistan. We have walked across the windy landscape of the Ustyurt Plateau, through the terrible Red Desert (which is actually a shade of pink), and along the winding banks of the Amu Darya river. Now, we walk on a paved highway into the Fergana Valley, to the city of Margilan. Margilan is the last center of traditional silk makers in Uzbekistan.

According to the story, a long time ago, there was a Chinese princess named Lei Zu. When she was 14, she 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 studied it. She pinched a thread that would change the world: silk.

The story isn’t true. Princess Lei Zu never existed. However, silk production was invented in China more than 5,000 years ago. And the process was somehow kept a secret for about 3,000 of those years. This secret was powerful. It gave China complete control over one of the most valuable items of the ancient world. Silk would clothe Roman Emperors. A famous global trade route was named for it: the Silk Road. For thousands of years, the real origins of the beautiful fabric were a great mystery to everyone except the Chinese people. The fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus believed silk was made from soils in the Far East. Other scholars guessed that it was woven from tree leaves. Who could have known that it came from a moth?

Bombyx mori is the most common silk-making moth species.

It is no longer a wild moth. Instead, it has been cared for by Chinese silk masters for thousands of years. So, the moth is now sightless, flightless, hairy—and the smoky color of moonlight. Bombyx mori lays about 500 eggs and dies soon after. Its hungry worms are fed mulberry tree leaves by silk workers. The worms grow to 10,000 times their original weight. (When the worms are piled by the thousands inside dark worm nurseries, the sound of their munching is like the loud hiss of rain on a tin roof.) Then, the worms start to become pupa, a stage in their life cycle. During this time, they spin a small, tough, egg-like shell around themselves called a cocoon. Each of their cocoons holds roughly half a mile of silk thread that is about .00059 inches in diameter.

“We must find the loose ends and unravel them,” says Inoyatkhan Okhunova. Okhunova is a silk maker who has worked at the Yodgorlik silk mill in Margilan for more than 30 years. “It is best not to break them. This takes practice.”

To do this, Okhunova boils the cocoons in large pots of soapy water. The individual silk fibers shine like spider webbing in the steamy workshop light. Another worker spins them—in braids of five, seven, or ten—onto a bobbin. A bobbin is a cone or cylinder that holds thread.

This is just the beginning.

The process of making finished silk fabric is complex and difficult. Watching it being made, it is easy to understand how silk-weaving remained a secret for centuries. Much of the silk in Margilan is still colored the old-fashioned way. Makers use natural dyes that have been used for 2,000 years: onion skins (to make yellow), pomegranate (to make brown), indigo (to make blue), and walnut shells (to make red). A single piece of hand-made Margilan silk can take a month of careful labor to make. It passes through many skillful hands. The patterns and rhythms of the process are calming and thoughtful. At one station in the Yodgorlik mill, a man operates a tool called a weaving swift. He coils long threads into loops in a pattern that feels ancient and endless, like a woven prayer.

“The art was almost lost in Soviet times,” says Rosuljon Mirzaakhmedov, who is a ninth-generation silk weaver. “The government controlled the market. They only made silk with machines. They did not permit private weaving.”

Mirzaakhmedov’s father spent five years in jail in the 1980s for owning a loom. A loom is a tool used to weave cloth. Today, Mirzaakhmedov works with a group of silk-weaving families in Margilan.

Aziz and I walk on toward China, as winter falls around us. We follow a route that once tied the East to the West.

It is hard.

The Fergana sky is cloudy and cold. The sun hangs dully in the sky like a pale cocoon. Our donkey driver, Tolik Bekniyazov, walks along the frozen road ahead. He is a quiet traveler. At some old camp along the trail, he must have noticed me squinting, trying to get a nylon thread through the eye of a needle, maybe to mend my coat. Soon, we parted ways at the border. Many days later, I discovered that he had threaded and knotted every needle in my sewing kit. I shook my head in wonder.

We are all weavers.

View the original dispatch to see a short video of the silk weaving swift in action.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

May 7, 2024

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