The Art and Design of Spider Silk

A RISD Museum Exhibit


The RISD Museum recently acquired a collection of extraordinarily rare and delicate textile pieces. Their production was unlike any in existence, and originated from an island country off the coast of East Africa. There, in the hot and sticky rainforests of Madagascar, is a surplus of even stickier, lustrous golden silk. Spun fresh each day by their makers, the webs drip from the verdant canopies like a labyrinth of vines.

On display in two glass shadow boxes are Golden Orb (Nephila) specimens, courtesy of the Nature Lab. One is Nephila pilipes, collected in Boac, Marinduque, Philippines, and the other, an unidentified Nephila from a similar climatic ecosystem.

In the display case at the center of the room, a ghostly knit veils a transparent bodice, golden shawls seem to levitate, and a hand-crocheted garment drips with pearls. The mediums range from organic spider silk to genetically modified goats’ milk.


Sruli Recht: An Emperor's New Untangling
“Goats farmed in a biofactory were genetically modified to produce the protein of the golden orb spider (Nephila clavipes) in their milk, which was then used to produce the extruded synthetic fiber marketed as Biosteel”

Nicholas Godley & Simon Peers: Shawl
"Golden orb (Nephila madagascariensis) filaments, handwoven in Madagascar"

Strumpet & Pink: Willow's Web
"Hand-crocheted Microsilk, embellished with seed pearls"

Laurie Anne Brewer, Associate Curator of Fashion and Textiles at RISD Museum, is the orchestrator behind the museum’s exhibit, The Art and Design of Spider Silk. Brewer declares, “These pieces show that the combination of soft, gossamer lightness and hard structure can coexist.”

She explains that hundreds of thousands, to 1 million Golden Orb spiders are required to produce enough silk to create textiles of this stature:

“To harvest spider silk, a Nephila female must be captured, restrained in a harness, and ‘silked’—much like a cow is milked—for several minutes before being returned to the wild. During one silking session, a female spider produces between 40 and 100 meters of filament. Twenty-four of these filaments were twisted together to create the golden spider-silk thread shown below. Malagasy artisans at Godley & Peers wove hundreds of natural spider-silk threads together to make the yellow-orange shawls.”

Simon Peers, co-designer of the famous textiles on display at RISD Museum, proclaims, “Spider silk is very elastic, and it has a tensile strength that is incredibly strong compared to steel or Kevlar…There's scientific research going on all over the world right now trying to replicate the tensile properties of spider silk and apply it to all sorts of areas in medicine and industry, but no one up until now has succeeded in replicating 100 percent of the properties of natural spider silk."

Randy Kennedy, author of Gossamer Silk, From Spiders Spun, revealed, “While some died in its production, Mr. Godley and Mr. Peers said they set up a system in which the spiders being used were released daily, and detailed spreadsheets were kept to chart the number of spiders used, their yield and the casualty rate.” Mr. Godley, a self-proclaimed 'arachnophobe,' later professed, “we have become sort of the defenders of these spiders, something we never thought we’d be.”

Currently, there are some big names in the fashion industry that are making moves to more ethically reproduce spider silk through the invention of synthetics. Most notably, the high-end, sustainable fashion company known as Stella McCartney, partnered with biotechnology company, Bolt Threads, to innovate silk synthetics that have a reduced impact on the environment.

McCartney was excited to report that, “Bolt Threads were able to understand the relationship between spider DNA and the characteristics of the fibers they make. Their technology replicates these processes at scale…Not only is this method revolutionary, it creates cleaner, closed-loop processes for manufacturing, using green chemistry practices. It also produces less pollution, creates long-term sustainability and it is vegan friendly, because it is entirely made from yeast, sugar and DNA.”

The collaboration of the two companies generates exciting new possibilities for the future of sustainable fashion. Perhaps the stylish appeal of biomimicry will encourage consumers to be more environmentally and socially responsible. This fascinating collection will be on display at the RISD Museum until April 19th 2020.

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The RISD Nature Lab is an EPSCoR|C-AIM Core Research Facility supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement #OIA-1655221 and EAGER Grant Award #1723559. ​​​Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed on this site are those of the Nature Lab and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.​

© 2020 Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design