Goddess of Silk — impact-driven category creator — Empress Leizu

Karthiga Ratnam
3 min readMar 31, 2021


Silk does for the body what diamonds do for the hand — Oscar de la Renta

Silk. It has captured the hearts of emperors, queens, designers, poets, and writers. Wars have been fought over it.

According to myth, the lady who started it all — Empress Leizu or Xi Ling-shi. She was a Chinese empress and wife to the Yellow Emperor. Back in the 27th century BC. The origin story of how she discovered silk varies. Some say she discovered it when a cocoon fell into her tea. Others say she dropped the cocoon in hot water and discovered the thread.

Whatever the origin story, the invention of silk, the silk loom, and sericulture (cultivation of silkworms) is attributed to Empress Leizu. In modern category design terms, that the category design, product design, and company design. The 4th element — impact design comes much later. Isn’t it fascinating to unearth category design in history?

Today, Empress Leizu is worshipped as the “Silkworm Mother” in China.

Ancient Silk Route, Source — https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silk_route.png

So powerful was the impact of silk it was used as a currency and traded along the now-infamous Silk Road. One of the main reasons for the Opium Wars was the demand cause by Chinese silk in Britain.

Silk became such an integral part of the Chinese economy and was traded to South Korea, Japan, India, Persia, Egypt, Greece, and even Rome. Such was the demand for silk in Rome, it eventually caused a financial collapse. The importance of silk as a commodity shaped the geopolitical landscape of many empires and the world. Being a history buff, I would love to dive into the Silk Road and its impact. But alas this is about impact-driven category creation.

Today the silk industry is estimated to be worth USD 16. 94 billion. China is the leading producer and India second. Incidentally, India is also the largest consumer of silk.

But natural silk comes at a high price for the planet. Given that it's natural and ergo bio-degradable you would be excused if you assumed it's good for the planet.

But the environmental impact of silk as a textile is high. This is according to the Higgs index. It's much higher than polyester, rayon, or even cotton.

  • Silk farms use extreme amounts of energy for air conditioning and humidity control. They also use energy to harvest the cocoon.
  • Roughly 3000 cocoons are required to make 1 yard of silk
  • Silk production uses high volumes of water
  • Mulberry farms tend to use pesticides that are harmful to the environment
  • Natural silk production is CRUEL because of the way the silkworms are treated
  • There is much debate on child labor and worker rights within the silk industry

The Journal of International Academic Research for Multidisciplinary had this to say in a 2016 study on health risk for workers:

Even though, the silk is based on natural origin, the silk industry involves certain health risks in all the segments of silk processing from mulberry cultivation to silk finishing includes pesticides and herbicides toxicity from mulberry field, carbon monoxide poisoning, unhygienic rearing, use of bed disinfectants causing breathing problems and acts as carcinogens. Source — http://www.jiarm.com/JUNE2016/paper27772.pdf

Given that silk is an animal-based product it is not vegan. However stems from the Lotus flower have yielded rich silks, but is extremely rare. It's also 10 times more expensive than silkworm silks. Here’s a fascinating video on the lotus silk industry:

Source — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9F-u4T7leQ

I have stayed away from silk all my life. I felt sorry for the worms. But whatever your feelings are it's hard to deny the impact of Empress Leizu’s invention. Trade, politics, high fashion, and luxury have been forever changed. The impact of the silk route on art, religion, culture, philosophy, architecture was undeniable.

It caused a cultural exchange and connected people. I have no doubt in my mind silk is an impact-driven invention and an impact-driven category.



Karthiga Ratnam

Impact-Driven Category Designer | Working group member Wicked 7