In centuries past, silk was one of the most mysterious and coveted substances to come from the East. The material has a history that goes back thousands of years. The oldest silk dates back to the Chinese Neolithic period, at about 3630 BCE. Mystery and mythology shrouded the production and weaving of silk. The Chinese empire closely guarded the secrets of sericulture, or silk farming.
Despite their best efforts, knowledge of silkworms and the methods of extracting the precious substance from them, spread to other cultures in Asia. It eventually went as far as Byzantium by way of the Silk Road, the trade route through which it reached European markets.
The mystique and beauty of silk have led to cultures ascribing it with mythic properties. People used it not only for luxurious silk comforters or shirts, but also as talismans. One of the most fascinating bits of folklore surrounding silk comes from Japan, and the lore may not be as fanciful as modern people might think.
Tradition Born From Conflict and Hope
According to the lore of some Asian cultures, the method of how a weaver made an article of clothing is just as important as the material in order to imbue it with protective power. In China, a baby who reaches their hundredth day is clad in white silk. The baby’s mother sews the clothes with a running stitch to symbolize a long and strong lifespan.
Japanese mothers and wives, however, once had a different way of showing their devotion to their men. During times of conflict, these women would make senninbari for their men to wear to war. A senninbari, which literally translates to “thousand stitch person,” was a wide belt made of any fabric. Impoverished women would make them out of sack cloth, but the best material for the job was silk. The women would then go around their community, asking other women to sew a single stitch on the belt. They would continue to do so until they reached a thousand stitches.
Mothers made these belts for their sons, and wives for their husbands. Every stitch was a sincere wish that the man return home, safe and healthy. The women showed their dedication and faith through the effort involved in making a senninbari. Japanese women, both in their homeland and in America, made these belts during World War II.
A surprising quality of silk could explain the senninbari: densely packed and woven silk can stop bullets. Japanese and Korean armorers discovered this property as early as the late 1800s. They recommended that 30 layers of silk can act as a soft armor against “black powder weapons.” The first Western bulletproof vest even used four layers of silk and a thin sheet of steel. The inventor demonstrated it by wearing one and getting shot with a .44 caliber gun at 10 paces. He survived, and said he felt only a slight tap.
The strength of silk might be the root of the lore about senninbari, though we can’t be sure. We do know that Japan suffered over two million military casualties during World War II. It’s impossible to know how many of these men wore belts woven with a thousand desires for their safe return. It’s impossible to know how many women collected a thousand stitches, only for each one to unravel. We do know that each senninbari was a woman’s hopes and dreams, made manifest through silk and stitches.