Silk in Warfare

The Great Kahn used Silk in Warfare

One of the many myths I am consistently confronted with is that silk is fragile and requires special care.  Part of the history of silk is the history of mankind…which means its a blood soaked history of brutal warfare.  Not just because the Chinese Emperors made the smuggling of silk worms and mulberry trees a crime punishable by death.  But literal warfare.  The Romans were first introduced to silk through warfare when they saw the silk banners of the Parthians in 53 BC.  And to this day, silk painting is a beautiful art form, with silk being a wonderful medium for Medieval recreationsits.

But while the Parthians banners were a peripheral use of Silk in Warfare, there were far more direct uses.  Like Genghis Kahn insisting his troops have shirts made of silk.  This wasn’t vanity or ego on the part of the great Kahn.  Silk, when densely woven, is surprisingly resistant to damage.  In the case of the Mongolian army, it acted in conjunction with the lamellar armour.  If an arrow managed to pierce the plate of the lamellar, the silk undershirt could halt penetration before it got to far, allowing for easy extraction after battle.  Silk is just not that fragile and damn useful overall.

Moving east, the Japanese also utilized silk in warfare.  Not just useful for the Kimono, the Japanese also used silk for Horo.  Essentially, this was a large framework over which was placed silk, which was worn by messengers.  The reason was not just to mark the messenger as a person of importance, because wearing such an ostentatious item surely marked one as a target.  The Horo was designed to deflect arrows shot at the messenger.  The linked video is about 11 minutes long, but if you fast forward to about 9 minutes, you get to see a reproduction Horo in action…it is glorious.  If you watch the whole video, you learn that the translation of Horo…is arrow catcher.

In addition to the east, the west also found a use for silk in warfare.  Namely, parachutes.  Up until the Japanese placed an embargo on the US during World War II, parachutes were made out of silk.  After the embargo, the US still needed parachutes, and fortunately for us, technology had advanced enough that Nylon was able to step in and take the strain.  Once on the ground, there was no expectation of recovering the silk for another jump, but many GI’s would pack it up anyway and ship it home.

Silk has a long history globally.  Not just in fashion, but as life saving measures for military throughout history, and in to medicine.  So when someone says silk is delicate–tell it to the Mongols.

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One Comment

  1. Pingback:Shot Silk: Older than one would think, and as stunning as ever

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