One Million Spiders, One Fabulous Fabric

Posted on 23. Sep, 2009 by in Arts and Culture, Rebecca Leung

As the buzz of Fashion Week winds down and Climate Week heats up (or tries not to, as the case may be), the American Museum of Natural History unveiled a work of art today that both the fashionista and environmentalist can appreciate: spider silk textile.

Spider silk textile on display

Spider silk textile on display

Five years ago, Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley began what Peers calls “a fairly eccentric venture” in Madagascar.  The pair decided to resurrect a weaving technique pioneered by French missionary Jacob Paul Camboué in the late nineteenth century, extracting spider silk and using it to weave fabric.

The last known piece of fabric created from spider silk has disappeared since its creation over 100 years ago, leading Peers, founder of a company specializing in weaving and embroidery, to describe the new object as “a textile which surpasses nearly anything that exists in the world.”

Tassles on the fabric

Tassles on the fabric

“We never thought that this actually could be done,” said Godley, a former handbag designer, “until we built a machine and it actually worked.”

The result, a golden tapestry measuring eleven feet by 4 feet, was displayed for the first time today at the Museum, where Peers and Godley hope it will remain.  “We’d like it to stay as much as possible in a public institution,” Godley said.

The bright flaxen color of the fabric is a natural product of the golden orb spider.  Norm Platnick, the Peter J. Sullivan Family Curator of Spiders at the Museum, explained that the color is unique to the golden orb species.  Different spiders can produce different hues of gold, depending on what they eat, but each strand is twisted from the silk of about 96 spiders, making the color appear uniform.  Over a million spiders were used for the project, producing the raw material at a rate of 14,000 spiders per ounce of silk.

Close up of the pattern

Close up of the pattern

The tapestry may be kept under glass, but it is far from fragile.  “Spider silk is incredibly strong,” said Platnick.  “Its tensile strength in many cases is greater than steel of the same diameter.”  Scientists have been attempting for decades to recreate the lightweight strength of the web with synthetic materials, but so far have had little success.  Such a manmade fabric could be used in anything from parachutes to bulletproof vests.

Mark Mitchell, who worked on the project, points out that spider silk is sustainable, as opposed to traditional silk made from silkworms, mostly in China.  The production of “regular silk results in 100% death of the caterpillars,” said Mitchell, whereas their technique causes few spider deaths.

Platnick points out that the technique does deplete the arachnids’ reserves. “Silk is an essential resource to the animal, and obviously taking that silk away decreases their fitness.”  Still, he agrees that the method is fairly spider-friendly, since the team releases each spider after extracting the liquid protein from its abdomen.

The golden orb spiders that make the thread.

The golden orb spiders that make the thread.

Peers and Godley also created a shawl out of the gauzy material; socialite Tinsley Mortimer will don it at a museum event tonight, making her the first person to wear a spider silk garment since Napolean’s wife sported gloves made of the stuff.

The textile is already wowing museum patrons.  Nuria Alvarez, one of the first visitors, gazed at the lustrous fabric and said, “It’s incredible that a spider can make something like this.”

That is Peers’ favorite aspect of the entire project.  “The best thing,” Peers said, “has been taking something that only exists in the imagination and making it reality.”

Peers and Godley

Peers and Godley

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