Spider silk

9 06 2013

Earlier this year a richly embroidered silken cape was put on display at London’s V&A Museum – one of the first such garments woven in hundreds of years. It was made from the silk of one million golden orb spiders.

The story of spider silk is a fascinating one.

It started in the highland forests of Madagascar, home to a subspecies of the widely distributed tropical golden-orb spider. Here, the spiders’ webs were particularly strong, sometimes bridging rivers and spreading over metres of space between the forest trees. Strand for strand, the silk from which they are woven is stronger than kevlar, the material from which bulletproof vests are made.

After that though, everything becomes murky. Some say the idea for weaving the spiders webs into silk belonged to the Malagasy people – who had emigrated to the ecologically bizarre island all the way from Borne0. Others credit the discovery of weavable spider silk to a French Jesuit missionary, Father Paul CambouĂ©.

There is very little information about this on the internet, it is all shrouded in mystery.

At the end of the nineteenth century a few curious French colonists tried to harness the spider-silk-weaving techniques into an industry, producing a few items for exhibitions at Worlds Fairs and the like, but it never caught on and soon the industry was languishing again, to be forgotten for almost a century.

It has only been in recent years that a pair of Malagasy-based expat textile designers Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley have tried to revive the art, exhibiting a piece first at the Art Institute in Chicago and then this year, a new larger piece in London.

The problem is – as mentioned in the video above – spiders are difficult, if not impossible to farm. One such spider farm is below:


And here is where this incredibly exotic story takes an unexpected sci-fi twist. Scientists are currently experimenting with a new way to produce spider silk through genetic manipulation of silkworms, transplanting spiders’ genes to the worms, allowing them to produce the silk themselves. In other words, spider silk would be produced entirely without spiders.

So, this story catapaults into the space age…

If the scientists are successful a new golden age of spider-silk production might begin….but will it still be really spider silk at all? A very postmodern puzzle and just the latest fascinating piece of conjecture tied to (sorry) this amazing material.

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