I found this very interesting article in the New York Times and thought you all would enjoy it. For possibly the first time in documented history, someone has managed to make a fabric out of pure spider silk. Have a look!
September 23, 2009
Gossamer Silk, From Spiders Spun
By RANDY KENNEDY
Gossamer Silk, From Spiders Spun
By RANDY KENNEDY
For anyone considering going into the business of manufacturing traditional textiles using the filaments extracted from the spinnerets of the golden orb spider of Madagascar, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
The largest spiders, the females, can grow to about the size of a small adult human hand, with hairy stiletto legs and the ability to eat large, flying insects.
Only the females produce the silk, which is renowned for both its striking saffron color and its tensile strength (five to six times stronger than steel by weight). But these females are notoriously cannibalistic and if left to their own devices will quickly reduce the entire silk assembly line to arachnid carnage.
They don’t seem to want to work in the winter, and when it rains too much, their silk becomes viscous and cannot be used.
And if the spiders in the factory begin to disappear mysteriously, it might be because, in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, it is believed by some that eating these spiders, fried, is good for the throat or just good eating.
“There was, shall we say, a fairly steep learning curve,” said Simon Peers, a British art historian and textile expert who has lived in Madagascar for two decades. Five years ago Mr. Peers and Nicholas Godley, an American fashion designer also living on the island, began a partnership to do what no one there, or anywhere, had tried for more than 100 years: to harness spiders to make silk in the same way that silkworm cocoons have been used for thousands of years.
The other day in a fourth-floor storage area deep within the American Museum of Natural History, two women wearing blue rubber gloves carefully pulled back a plastic covering to show what Mr. Peers and Mr. Godley — along with more than a million spiders and a dexterous team of intrepid Malagasy spider handlers — had accomplished. It is an 11-foot-long, brilliantly golden-hued cloth, the first recorded example of a hand-woven brocaded textile made entirely from the silk of spiders, according to experts at the Museum of Natural History, where beginning on Thursday it will go on display for six months in the Grand Gallery.
Mr. Peers has worked for years to revive the weaving traditions for which Madagascar was once famous, and pieces made under his direction have found their way into the collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. In his research into textiles, he had long been intrigued by the alchemical, almost occult tales of attempts over several centuries to harvest spider silk for weaving, an endeavor that, as he has written, always seemed to be “imbued with metaphor and poetry, with nightmare and phobia.”
The first well-documented effort was made by a wealthy Frenchman, François Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire, who wrote a treatise on his work in 1710 and made enough silk from spider cocoons to produce stockings, gloves and, by some unreliable accounts, an entire suit of clothes for Louis XIV.
In the late 1890s in Madagascar, where fishermen had long used spider silk for rudimentary nets and line, a French technical-school official mounted another spider project, this time extracting the silk directly from living spiders to be twisted into threads. He was said to have harvested enough to fashion the hangings for a bed that was exhibited in 1900 in Paris, though the hangings no longer exist, and historical accounts differ as to how much fabric was actually created.
“And that,” Mr. Peers said in a recent interview, “was more or less the summit of everyone’s effort to that point — until we took it up again, like mad men.”
Mr. Godley, 40, ran a business in Madagascar making high-end raffia handbags, and while visiting Mr. Peers, 51, several years ago in Antananarivo, the capital, he noticed an odd-looking metal spool in Mr. Peers’s office. The spool was a re-creation of a piece of equipment that had been used in the silk harvesting effort a century earlier. It fired Mr. Godley’s imagination, and he began trying to talk Mr. Peers into reviving the effort.
After many fits and starts, the two men put together an almost Victorian spider-silk harvesting operation that hired local people to comb the countryside with long bamboo poles, carefully collecting live female spiders — about 3,000 a day — in boxes. The spiders were taken to Mr. Godley, who set up a system in which workers, all women, would handle each spider, gently pulling out the thread that dangled from its spinnerets. (The spiders bite if provoked, but their bites are not dangerous.)
The spider would then be placed in a harness, with 23 others, and sit more or less patiently as a spool tugged the rest of its web out in continuous threads that could sometimes stretch as long as 400 yards before the spider had given its all.
These 24 threads were then hand-twisted into one and joined into 96-thread strands that served as the foundation of the textile, which is brocaded with traditional Malagasy motifs.
“Not one thread ever broke on the loom — it’s that strong,” Mr. Godley said. (He asked a reporter looking at the cloth recently at the museum to grab a strand in one of the tassels at the end of the textile and try to break it. The thread had about as much give as a chain used to lock up a New York City messenger’s bike.)
And what became of the spiders, without whose very personal contributions the textile would not have been possible? While some died in its production, Mr. Godley and Mr. Peers said they set up a system in which the spiders being used were released daily, and detailed spreadsheets were kept to chart the number of spiders used, their yield and the casualty rate.
“We have become sort of the defenders of these spiders, something we never thought we’d be,” said Mr. Godley, who calls himself a committed arachnophobe, but added, “They really are very regal-looking creatures.”
The two men say they hope that the textile, which cost more than half a million dollars to make, ends up being acquired by a public institution and displayed. (It is on loan to the American Museum of Natural History.)
“I hate sounding pretentious, but what we wanted to do here was produce something that was a work of art,” said Mr. Godley, mentioning the cloth in the company of costly, dazzling (and highly publicized) contemporary works by artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. “I feel like what we’ve produced in some ways is more exceptional because of the extraordinary amount of effort that went into it.”
As soon as the warm season in Madagascar begins next month, and the golden orbs begin productively spinning their webs again, the two men will begin making more cloth, which might find a market in the reviving fashion industry. But Mr. Godley said that he and Mr. Peers harbored few illusions, at least so far, about making a business of their strange gossamer obsession.
“If we were doing all of this to make money,” he said, “I could think of much, much easier ways to do it.”