In a gorgeous history that spans continents and millennia, Aarathi Prasad weaves together the complex story of the queen of fabrics.
Through the scientists who have studied silk, and the biology of the animals from which it has been drawn, Prasad explores the global history, natural history, and future of a unique material that has fascinated the world for millennia.
For silk, prized for its lightness, luminosity, and beauty is also one of the strongest biological materials ever known. More than a century ago, it was used to make the first bulletproof vest, and yet science has barely even begun to tap its potential. As the technologies it has inspired – from sutures to pharmaceuticals, replacement body parts to holograms – continue to be developed in laboratories around the world, they are now also beginning to offer a desperately needed, sustainable alternative to the plastics choking our planet.
Prasad's Silk is a cultural and biological history from the origins and ancient routes of silk to the biologists who learned the secrets of silk-producing animals, manipulating the habitats and physiologies of moths, spiders and molluscs. Because there is more than one silk, there is more than one story of silk. More than one road, more than one people who discovered it, and wove its threads.
From the moths of China, Indonesia and India to the spiders of South America and Madagascar, to the silk-producing molluscs of the Mediterranean, Silk is a book rich in the passionate connections made by women and men of science to the diversity of the animal world. It is an intoxicating mix of biography, intellectual history and science writing that brings to life the human obsession with silk.
Aarathi Prasad is a writer, broadcaster, and researcher. She is the author of In the Bonesetter's Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine (Profile, 2016) which was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and won the Popular Medicine Award at the BMA Awards 2017; and Like A Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex (Oneworld, 2012), shortlisted for the Salon Prize and translated into Italian, Bulgarian and Dutch. Born in London to an Indian mother who wore only silk saris and a Caribbean father who loved the natural world, Aarathi was educated in the West Indies and the UK. After completing a PhD in molecular genetics from Imperial College London, she later trained in bioarchaeology. She works as a Senior Research Fellow at the UCL Institute for Global Health, focusing on sustainability and urban health in Kenya, and as part of an international team excavating and analysing ancient DNA from funerary sites in Spain, Rome, and Pompeii.
"A tour of the anecdotal, the industrial and the gruesome [...] Readers coming to this globetrotting and species-leaping volume expecting vignette after genteel vignette of 5,000-odd years of Chinese silk manufacture are in for a nasty shock. Here be spiders, and not just spiders, but metre-long Mediterranean clams, and countless moth species spinning their silks everywhere from Singapore to Suriname"
– Financial Times
"The global scope of Prasad's book draws out its most compelling material links"
– Daily Telegraph, four-star review
"Prasad is such an infectious and knowledgeable enthusiast that it is hard not to be swept away by her enticing facts"
– Literary Review
"Both scientific and poetic, this remarkable book shows how the great tides of history are shaped through human encounters with the intricate variety of the non-human world"
– David Wengrow, co-author of the international bestseller The Dawn of Everything
"Fascinating [...] Aarathi Prasad cross-crosses centuries and cultures to tell of the intrepid explorers, botanists, scientists and entrepreneurs who were determined to unravel the secrets of silk production. Her book captures their persistence and her own in the search for the little-told but revelatory stories of human curiosity and ingenuity"
– Clare Hunter, author of Threads of Life
"Aarathi Prasad has woven a wonder of a narrative. Like the transformation of caterpillar to moth that she explores so beautifully, this is a network of threads that spin around the world and tell a story of science, of history, of humanity itself"
– Kate Strasdin author of The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes
"An incredible read. Deeply researched, dazzling. Prasad weaves a magical thread through history, culture, science and nature, unfolding the long and deep relationship we have with the natural history of silk and the creatures that make it"
– Seirian Sumner, author of Endless Forms
"Prasad weaves her strands of science, history and culture to create a rich narrative tapestry that's as sumptuous as the material itself. Full of fascinating detail"
– Gaia Vince, author of Nomad Century