cover image Silk: A World History

Silk: A World History

Aarathi Prasad. Morrow, $32.50 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-316025-5

Over time, many individuals and cultures have independently discovered how to make silk, according to this illuminating history from bioarcheologist Prasad (In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room). The fabric, prized for its beauty, is also one of the strongest biologically produced materials; it was even used to make the first bulletproof vest (for Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who fatefully neglected to wear it on the day of his assassination in 1914). Most famously harvested from a species of silkworm (a moth in its larval stage, attempting to spin a cocoon) that was domesticated in ancient China, silk can also be derived from spiders and mollusks. In a narrative keenly focused on scientific fieldwork and invention, Prasad tells the story of silk’s development mostly through profiles of naturalists and detailed descriptions of archaeological finds. Subjects include Dutch scientist-illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian, who in 1699 traveled to Suriname and collected specimens of silk-producing moth species that later helped Holland compete with China’s carefully guarded silk industry, and the 20th-century archaeological discovery of ancient Rome’s reliance on mollusk-silk. Prasad concludes by spotlighting current innovations in medicine and tech involving silk, and points to the fabric’s radical potential in a world that wants to ween itself off plastics. Thanks to her elegant prose, the book’s deeply informed scientific explanations are charming and accessible. Readers will revel in this exquisite deep dive. (Apr.)