MIAMI -- Before someone figured out you could toss it into the washer on "delicate," and before the Chinese began cranking it out as $10 T-shirts, silk reigned as the fabric of royalty and the royalty of fabrics. Mystery and grandeur whispered in the sensual sibilance of its name.
But in the 15 years since the United States granted China "most favored nation" trading status, silk has become as common -- in every sense of the word -- as synthetics. It owes its popularity as much to China's cheap labor as to Americans' renewed appreciation for natural fibers.
China produces about 80 percent of all silk garments, followed distantly by Korea, India and Italy. It has swamped world apparel markets with low-priced items, many with quality to match.
Much of what proudly sports a "100 percent silk" tag in the mid-price and discount stores is so flimsy that a broken fingernail can shred it. It bears about as much resemblance to luxuriant couture silks as vinyl does to leather.
Even so, some fashion veterans are pleased about the democratization of silk, Georgette Rubin among them. She is co-owner of the Florida-based, elegant women's clothier that bears the name of her late mother, Lillie Rubin.
"I don't wince when I see it in malls," said Ms. Rubin, who oversees 70 stores nationwide. "Not everyone can afford a very expensive outfit, so women who don't have a lot of money to spend on clothes can enjoy this wonderful fabric."
Silk, she added, "is my favorite fabric, and I wear a lot of it. It's the most versatile fabric there is. You can wear a silk shirt with jeans, or an elegant ball gown in silk. . . . It takes color so wonderfully. Nothing else has the vibrance."
Depending on the weave and density, silk can be velvety or coarse, iridescent or opaque, delicate as a spider web or rugged as corduroy.
It shrinks less than cotton: about 2 percent. It holds body heat as well as wool, without being scratchy. And it "breathes," which makes it a much healthier choice than nylon for women's panties.
"Shantung is very much in vogue for pantsuits, dresses, jackets," adds Ms. Rubin. "It's got a sheen, and wonderful surface interest."
A utility fabric
That's important, she says, as designs are getting simpler.
The original parachute material, silk has come into its own as a utility fabric.
Since publishing its first catalog in 1983, WinterSilks, a mail-order company that specializes in silk-knit underwear, has grown to a $30-million-a-year business, said Chris Vig, vice president.
He said turtleneck shirts and long johns are the perennial best sellers, but satin-trimmed robes, silk pajamas and boxers are what's "trendy."
Initially, the public "took some convincing" about the concept, said Wendy Bale, the company's senior art director. "When people think of silk, the tendency is to think of raw silk or satin, the 'old school' of silk thought. Now, with knits and sweaters, it's not sheeny. It's more nubby." In comparison, she added, "polyester is like wearing a plastic bag."
But the hardest sell was "getting people over the perception that you have to send it to the dry cleaner." For this development, New York's Go Silk Co. can take credit. "We invented washable silk and washed silk," says president Jerry Hirsch. "Our designer at the time, Henry Lehr, stumbled across it in 1985 at a Paris flea market: a parachute that was very soft and pliable. They'd wash it, which would tighten the weave and bring strength to the fabric."
Shortly thereafter, "We did a collection of 10 styles: jumpsuits, pants, skirts, made in Hong Kong. We sent the clothes to a laundry in Brooklyn and washed them. We learned after trial and error that it got soft, the seams puckered a little and the clothes shrunk to size, like cotton. So we made garments large, and they would shrink to the exact size."
L Some lament the dilution of silk's exclusivity and mystique.
"It's not a good thing," said John Sullivan, president of American Silk Mills in Plains, Pa. His company used to make apparel; now 90 percent of its business is silk-blend fabrics used in home decorating.
"Long term, it will drive the high end out of . . . the fabric business," he said. "People will settle for lower quality because they don't have a choice, although silk will endure, and there will always be beautiful things made of it."
L Silk is a fabric to die for . . . if you're a "Bombyx mori."
This is the moth that produces the eggs that evolve into the caterpillars that devour the mulberry leaves . . . until they're ready to explode. Instead, they begin to extrude liquid silk covered with a gummy sealant called sericin, and spin themselves into cocoons.
But they meet their demise during the process that turns the cocoons into thread. When the moth is in the larval stage, the silk makers kill it with heat or steam. Otherwise, it would burrow out of the cocoon, breaking the filament (which can be a mile long).
A gentle touch