After 200 Years, The Most Coveted Fiber is Here
Currently, a textile that broke all records for the highest number of visitors to any single exhibit at the New York Natural History Museum, is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. The same textile, which was created by textile expert Simon Peers, and Nicholas Godley, a fashion designer and entrepreneur, was shown last year at the African gallery of the Art Institute of Chicago with similar success.
The textile in question is a cloth woven from Spider Silk. It was made in Madagascar using silk “milked” from native Golden-Orb Weaver spiders, and took eighty workers, eight years to complete. It is a brilliant saffron in color, nearly weightless, and slightlysticky to the touch, just like a spider web. It is covered with 6000-hours-worth of intricate embroidery depicting mysterious plants and spiders, and has been fashioned into a cape, a garment recalling the way a spider cocoons its victim.
These qualities speak of near-impossible rarity and luxury, and it is clear why such a textile would elicit awe even among the most jaded followers of fashion. It is a one of a kind piece of art, and you will likely never see another one made- it is simply too expensive and difficult to execute.
But the textile is not only uniquely beautiful, its uniquely strong and elastic. It has been thrilling scientists with its myriad possibilities. The silk of spiders, specifically the drag lines of the web, is known to be many times stronger than steel or kevlar, while being significantly lighter. These are qualities that would make for durable and lightweight fabric for military equipment, like parachutes and even bulletproof combat apparel. It would also make for better air-bags in cars. Add to that the fact that the human body doesn’t reject spider silk the way it can develop inflammation and reject synthetics, and the applications for the fiber multiply exponentially. In the bio-medical field, spider silk could be used for eye-sutures, jaw surgery, tendon and ligament reconstruction, and even in brain implants.
For years, spider silk was researched as an alternative to regular silk, produced by the Bombyx Mori, a Mulberry-leaf-munching worm, that cocoons itself in silk before emerging as a moth. A similar textile was displayed at the 1900 Paris Exhibit, also made from spiders native to Madagascar, thrilling spectators more than a hundred years ago. The Golden-Orb Weaver spiders are highly territorial and cannibalistic, which means that a supply of 500 spiders would diminish to 50 by the end of a day, as was the case with the spiders milked for the textile created by Peers and Godley. Silkworm silk may not be as strong but it is much easier to harvest which is why spider silk was abandoned around the turn of the 19th Century.
Although the difficulty of harvesting Golden-Orb Weaver spiders has threatened commercial spider silk production before, a promising advancement has come from the researchers at the Utah State University, headed by professor Randy Lewis. By combining the genes of spiders with those of goats, researchers have successfully bred goats that produce spider silk proteins in their milk. The harvesting of the filaments is not much more complicated than the shearing of goat fiber. A glass rod is inserted into the milk and a spider silk strand pulled out and spooled onto a reel, similar to a cone of yarn.
You may have worn a sweater knitted from the fluffy fiber of Angora goats and thought it quite exotic, but you may soon find yourself wearing transgenic goat fiber inside and outside of your body. This fiber has beauty, brains and brawn, and it looks like our centuries-long quest to harvest it is finally be a reality.
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