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?”

It is Aziz Khalmuradov.

Khalmuradov is my walking guide on the Silk Roads through Central Asia. He is a sturdy and sad-eyed man with immense knowledge of folklore. Aziz and I have trekked together for many months. Side by side, we have walked more than a thousand miles in Uzbekistan, across the windswept steppes of the Ustyurt Plateau, through the terrible Red Desert (which is actually a delicate sunburned-skin shade of pink), and atop endless river tracks that sway like dancers along the winding banks of the Amu Darya river. Now, we walk a paved highway into the Fergana Valley, into Margilan: the last center of traditional silk makers in Uzbekistan.

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 strands. Between her damp fingers, she pinched a thread that would change the world: silk.

The story is legend. Princess Lei Zu never existed. However, silk cultivation was indeed invented in China more than 5,000 years ago. And the process was somehow kept an industry secret for about 3,000 of those years. The secret preserved a monopoly on one of the most desired luxury items of the ancient world. For millennia, the real origins of the beautiful fabric—that eventually clothed Roman emperors and that lent its name to the most famous global trade route on the planet—was an utter mystery to non-Chinese. The fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus believed silk was manufactured from certain soils in the Far East. Other scholars suspected that it was woven from tree leaves. Who could have known the truth? That it was squirted from the glands of a moth?

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

It is a domesticated insect, like the honeybee. Selectively bred by Chinese silk masters for millennia, the moth is sightless, flightless, and hairy. It’s the dim, smoke-colored hue of light from a quarter moon. Bombyx mori lays about 500 eggs and, its job done, soon dies. Its hungry worms, fed hand-chopped mulberry tree leaves by silk workers, swell to 10,000 times their original weight. (The sound of the insects’ munching, when the worms are piled by the thousands inside dark worm nurseries, resembles the loud hiss of rain on a tin roof.) Sufficiently fattened, the worms start to pupate. They work tirelessly. They spin a small, tough, egg-like shell about themselves. 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, a silk maker who has worked for more than 30 years at the Yodgorlik silk mill, in Margilan. “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 fellow worker spins them—in braids of five, seven, ten—onto a bobbin. This is the ancient thread.

This is just the beginning.

The process of making a finished silk fabric is complex, difficult, and mathematical. Seen firsthand, it is easy to understand how silk-weaving remained a secret for centuries: a rumor of magic, an unearthly technology. Much of the silk in Margilan is still colored the old-fashioned way, using natural dyes known 2,000 years ago: onion skins (yellow), pomegranate (brown), indigo (blue), walnut shells (rusty red). A single hank of hand-made Margilan silk can take a month of careful labor to prepare. It passes through many nimble hands. It is manufacturing as meditation. At one station in the Yodgorlik mill, a man operates a weaving swift, coiling long threads into loops in a ritual that seems like pure thought made visible. It is a gathering of randomness into order, working at a regularity of action that seems to date back to the Big Bang, an endless and circular prayer.

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

Mirzaakhmedov’s father was put in prison for five years in the 1980s for owning a weaving loom. Today, Mirzaakhmedov runs a bustling cooperative of silk-weaving families in Margilan.

Aziz and I walk on toward China, into the mouth of winter. We follow a ghostly strand of silk that once bound East to West.

It is hard.

The Fergana sky is waxy, overcast and cold. The sun hangs dully in it like a pale cocoon. On the frozen road ahead strides Tolik Bekniyazov, our lanky donkey driver. He is a quiet nomad. At some old trailside camp, he must have noticed me squinting, trying to spear a licked thread—the cheapest nylon, not silk—through the eye of a needle, perhaps to mend my coat. Soon, we will part ways at a new border. And I will discover many days later, shaking my head in wonder, that he has threaded and knotted every needle in my sewing kit.

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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