Sericious Moments and Carmine Broods

Zayton (the Arabic alias for Quangzhou, China) gives its name to satins, fabrics produced through a kind of weave that yields textiles with particularly beautiful lustre and drape.  Of course the early satins, today called antique satins, were made of silk and were conspicuous as merchandise traded through the silk routes.  Satin production is an amazing technology, silk itself is a miracle.

Our world is is replete with examples of human-based coevolution, instances in which other organisms have adapted (changed genetically) in response to human activity, yielding some level of co-existence, even co-dependence.  Visitors to the Gardens encounter many economically-useful plants that are well-known as the basis for such relationships.  Two of the more curious examples, mulberry and opuntia, provide food and chemicals for human-selected “obligate herbivores” – insects that require those plants as the single food source for their larvae.   Based on these plants, through laborious, complex, and  raw process, humans have extracted some of our most famous luxury goods. 

The raw aspects of these two trades tie European history to ancient culture and process, for silk in Asia and carmine dye in Mesoamerica.  Both products involve such ancient cultivation of insects as to have produced “breeds” – a moth (Bombyx) in the case of silk, and a scale (Dactylopius) in cochineal – that are dependent on human husbandry for their existence.  In each case, the cultivated forms are fed and fattened, protected and coddled until harvest, which means sacrificing immature stages for what they have  produced.  With silkworms, it is the spun cocoon, made of a thread that might be a mile long.  For the cochineal, carmine acid forms internally and is “extracted” from the dried nymphs.  For each, the unique host plant chemistry provides the crucial food and chemical precursors, and the luxury products significantly impacted lifestyles and histories around the world, readily documented in Huntington collections.

Gainsborough, Lawrence, and Reynolds, artists whose works are prominent in the Huntington Gallery, utilized carmine lake (which in their time was normally based on cochineal) both for red color and as an overglaze to enhance luminosity of draped cloth. (B. C. Anderson, 2015. Evidence of Cochineal’s Use in Painting, Journal of Interdisciplinary History (45:3): 337–366.

French tapestries created at the Beauvais Tapestry Manufactory incorporate silk from French magnaneries made by canuts (look it up).

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