Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The protein fiber of silk is composed mainly of fibroin and is produced by certain insect larvae to form cocoons. The best-known silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity (sericulture). The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fibre, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.
Silk is produced by several insects, but generally only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for textile manufacturing. There has been some research into other types of silk, which differ at the molecular level. Silk is mainly produced by the larvae of insects undergoing complete metamorphosis, but some adult insects such as webspinners also produce silk, and some insects such as raspy crickets produce silk throughout their lives. Silk production also occurs in Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, and ants), silverfish, mayflies, thrips, leafhoppers, beetles, lacewings, fleas, flies, and midges. Other types of arthropod produce silk, most notably various arachnids such as spiders (see spider silk).
Silk's absorbency makes it comfortable to wear in warm weather and while active. Its low conductivity keeps warm air close to the skin during cold weather. It is often used for clothing such as shirts, ties, blouses, formal dresses, high fashion clothes, lining, lingerie, pajamas, robes, dress suits, sun dresses and Eastern folk costumes. Silk's attractive lustre and drape makes it suitable for many furnishing applications. It is used for upholstery, wall coverings, window treatments (if blended with another fiber), rugs, bedding and wall hangings. While on the decline now, due to artificial fibers, silk has had many industrial and commercial uses, such as in parachutes, bicycle tires, comforter filling and artillery gunpowder bags.
Fabrics that are often made from silk include charmeuse, habutai, chiffon, taffeta, crepe de chine, dupioni, noil, tussah, and shantung, among others.
A special manufacturing process removes the outer irritant sericin coating of the silk, which makes it suitable as non-absorbable surgical sutures. This process has also recently led to the introduction of specialist silk underclothing for people with eczema where it can significantly reduce it. New uses and manufacturing techniques have been found for silk for making everything from disposable cups to drug delivery systems and holograms. To produce 1 kg of silk, 104 kg of mulberry leaves must be eaten by 3000 silkworms. It takes about 5000 silkworms to make a pure silk kimono. The production of silk is called sericulture. The major silk producers are China (54%) and India (14%).