It’s not hyperbole then to claim that the textiles are among the world’s most rare and precious objects—liquid gold, if you will. - Eccouterre
Until recently I had only seen bits and pieces on the interwebs about silks derived from sources other than your common silkworm. Then all of a sudden pages and websites I follow were flush with posts about spider silk. Yes, you read correctly, spider silk. And not the kind Peter Parker tries to master the art of in some hollywood movie. Behold: the world's largest garment made entirely from spider silk. In keeping with the unavoidable imagery of superheroes when typing the words "s-p-i-d-e-r s-i-l-k", this incredible feat of engineering is a cape.
According to Eccouterre, the textile gets its "unearthly gleam" from the undyed filaments of female golden orb spiders which is an arachnid commonly found in Madagascar. British art historian Simon Peers and his American business partner Nicholas Godley spent five years collecting and harnessing over 1 million spiders in special “silking” contraptions to extract their threads, 24 critters at a time. But unlike mulberry silk from silkworms, in which the pupa is boiled alive in its cocoon, the spiders were released into the wild at the end of each day.
With an average of 23,000 spiders yield roughly 1 ounce of silk, this process monumentally time-consuming. The cape features intricate embroidered and appliquéd motifs that “celebrate the spider in myth and metaphor”. Most recently being displayed at the London Victoria & Albert Museum, viewing for this almost unbelievable piece ended yesterday.
Prior to this, an 11-foot-long prototype of the spider-silk textile debuted at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 2009. Breaking all records for most number of visitors to a single exhibit, the shawl was at the time believed to be the largest—and rarest—piece of cloth woven entirely from golden spider silk, known for both its intense colour and strength.
Again an intensely time-consuming venture, approximately 70 people collected spiders daily from webs on telephone wires, then a further dozen people drew silk from the spiders using hand-powered machines. While a system was set up so that spiders being used were released every day, some spiders died in production. As Godley told The New York Times
We have become sort of the defenders of these spiders, something we never thought we’d be... They really are very regal-looking creatures
The shawl features traditional Malagasy bird-and-flower motifs, has its genesis in 19th century stories of a French colonial administrator’s attempts to spin cloth from the threads of golden orb spiders.
In the late 1890s Madagascan fishermen used spider silk, which for its weight is stronger than steel, to create nets and lines. Since then history has seen spider silk produced from metabolically engineered bacteria and other hybrids involving goats. Considering how the mind boggles with the content above, I think the latter revelations can be saved for another post. Until then we can agree that spider silk is amazing almost to the point of unbelievable. Maybe hardest to believe is the time and manpower required to extract and produce spider silk. So I won't be keeping an eye out for spider silk at my local haberdashery. But I will never assume where silk comes from again.