The first time that I saw synthetic spider silk, it was behind glass in the Victoria & Albert Museum. After wrapping up my experiments for the day, I took a brief walk across Exhibition Road.
The first time that I saw synthetic spider silk, it was behind glass in the Victoria & Albert Museum. After wrapping up my experiments for the day, I took a brief walk across Exhibition Road. Swarms of people, in those glorious pre-pandemic days, were queued up outside of the science and natural history museums, eager to see Watson & Crick’s famous DNA double helix or the bones of some ancient dinosaur. My destination was just a stone’s throw away, deep in the belly of a quieter venue.
There was no line at the V&A. Inside, a slew of dummy mannequins were sporting dresses made from plastic bottles, hats made with mercury and gowns woven from synthetic spider silk. The exhibit, called Fashioned from Nature,kickstarted my obsession with synthetic textiles.
The silk gowns arrested my attention for a few reasons. Though visually beautiful, spider silk also has the practical benefit of being flexible yet strong, light yet durable. It is also incredibly difficult to harvest. Textile workers that collect silk from spiders sedate them with carbon dioxide, pin their limbs, and extrude the silk using miniature forceps. The process is made harder because many spiders are cannibalistic — some male Golden Orb Weavers will even rip off a leg and offer it to their mate before sex to (temporarily) appease their partner’s appetite. They usually escape uneaten.
To put the difficulties of spider silk into perspective, _WIRED _ran a story about a large piece of cloth made from natural spider silk. At the time, it was the only large cloth made from natural spider silk in existence (most silk comes from _Bombyx mori _silkworms). The cloth went on display at the American Museum of Natural History after “70 people spent four years collecting golden orb spiders from telephone poles in Madagascar, while another dozen workers carefully extracted about 80 feet of silk filament from each of the arachnids”.
It is no wonder, given these challenges, that my wardrobe is devoid of spider silk t-shirts. Fortunately, WIRED published this story more than ten years ago, and science has moved quickly since then.
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