Threads of Gold
Spider thread textile detail. Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Starting today, the American Museum of Natural History will be exhibiting the only known existing textile manufactured completely from spider dragline silk. A painstaking endeavor initiated by fashion designer Nicholas Godley and textile expert Simon Peers, the eleven-foot cloth radiates a striking gold color for which the Madagascar-based golden orb spiders are known. In addition to its beauty, the cloth is notably strong—five to six times greater than steel, in fact.
Godley and Peers’ remarkable (and nearly Sisyphean) effort to harness this natural ‘miracle material’ reminds us of Janine Benyus’ tribute to spider silk in her influential book Biomimicry. In the chapter entitled “Fitting Form to Function: Weaving Fibers Like a Spider,” Benyus questions why modern manufacturing techniques still require massive amounts of heat and pressure—when nature makes high-performance materials like spider silk without these inputs. Rather, the biochemical manufacturing approach favored by nature organizes proteins into long, sophisticated chains that ultimately perform better than most human-made substances.
Canada-based Nexia Biotechnologies proposed a synthetic dragline silk called BioSteel back in 2002, but development has been slow-going, and the company is still studying possible applications in medicine and microelectronics. If a breakthrough is made one day that allows for easy scalability, however, we may eventually see spider dragline silk appear in architectural textiles—without the need to thread from real spiders.