“Silk: A History in Three Metamorphoses” by Aarathi Prasad

Silk: A History in Three Metamorphoses,  Aarathi Prasad (William Collins, July 2023; HarperCollins India, September 2023; William Morrow, April 2024) Silk: A History in Three Metamorphoses, Aarathi Prasad (William Collins, July 2023; HarperCollins India, September 2023; William Morrow, April 2024)

If one thought, as I admit I did, that a book with “Silk” and “History” in its title would be (yet another) about China and the Silk Road, one will soon be disabused. Aarathi Prasad, a biologist and science writer, opens with the Lepidoptera floors at London’s Natural History museum. Silk, argues Prasad, has a much more complicated story that the conventional one of China and the Chinese silkworm Bombyx mori: “there is not just one silk, there is not just one story of silk. Not one road, one people who found it, nor who made it.” Indeed, some of the earliest silk cocoons ever found, from Xiyin Cun some two hundred kilometres west of Shuanghuaishu and dating from 3500 BCE, aren’t Bombyx mori at all.

The three metamorphoses of the title—“caterpillar to moth; cocoon to commodity; and simple protein chains to threads with very extraordinary capabilities”—are not perhaps the best to describe the book, which in instead organized around a somewhat different triplet of “other” silks: from “other” moths, sea silk from mollusks and spider silk.


That silk could come from other moths is not perhaps surprising, just something that I (and I imagine most other people) had never really thought about. These are so-called “wild silks”—muga, tasar, etc.—from India for the most part, “wild” being the operative term since the moths resist domestication. Prasad then turns to the somewhat mysterious sea silk which comes from filaments produced by the huge mollusk Pinna nobilis or noble pen. This, perhaps ironically, seems to come up in the literature more often than wild silk, as a Western counterpart in late antiquity to Chinese silks. Although some early examples seem to have survived, it is elusive. Later attempts to produce it have never really succeeded, at least not commercially. Attempts to use spider silk date from more or less modern times. Although some commercial applications (in medicine for example) have been developed, it remains very much a specialty product.

The search for a common thread, as it were, between these different silks is understandable, since silk from Bombyx mori was usually both the catalyst for the search for alternatives and the standard against which these alternatives were usually judged. Bombyx mori, indeed, gets rather short shrift in the book, perhaps because it has been so widely written about elsewhere. But rather than finding a throughline between these three non-standard silks, Prasad’s account ends up emphasizing their differences. Wild silk is to domesticated silk as game is to livestock. Sea silk has always seemed to be more of a curiosity than an important commodity, while spider silk is a product of the modern age. The similarity between the three is that attempts at commercialization date to the modern age and the best efforts of science and commerce notwithstanding, none have challenged silk from Bombyx mori in any significant way, and each, in its own way, has remained on the margins of the markets it was trying to infiltrate. (Prasad remains optimistic.)


In Silk, Prasad follows the by now common template in popular non-fiction of including biographical, historical and other informational vignettes. There is an outline of Linneaus and his system of classification of species; a description of visits to Ambon and Surinam in the late 17th-century and turn of the 18th by Georg Eberhardt Rumpf and Maria Sibylla Merian respectively (moths, caterpillars and maggots objects of seemingly endless fascination at the time); a digression on the Harappa civilization to provide evidence of an independent South Asian silk tradition of an antiquity similar to that of the Chinese; an introduction to Zain al-Din, an Indian painter of the 18th century who provided many of the illustrations for British naturalists; etc.

This is all very well done, and despite some of the tangents being less than entirely relevant to the main line of argument (and some going back and forth chronologically), each is informative in its own right. One can easily see Silk becoming the basis of a documentary series making considerable use of period costumes and exotic settings.

In a shift to what is almost reportage, Prasad concludes with a discussion of contemporary research and development, her background as an erstwhile researcher being much in evidence. The efforts haven’t been entirely successful:


the mimicking of nature – those attempts to generate a thread that animals make so effortlessly − has proved infinitely more difficult for scientists.


But she concludes


In silk is a fascination that will continue to inspire those who seek to understand the mysteries it still keeps, so that we may uncover the ample potential that it has yet to unfold.


Silk is perhaps best categorized as a work of popular history of science. Engaging and fluent, it will appeal to aficionados of the genre. For those who are already aware of the various histories and personages she mentions, Prasad’s packaging and connecting of dots is nevertheless a reminder of the continuing necessity to look beyond simple, and often simplistic, conventional narratives.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.