Mind & Matter


Threads of Gold

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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.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.