In the Future, We’ll All Wear Spider Silk

n 1709, François Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire, the president of the Court of Accounts, Aides, and Finances in Montpellier, France, presented the Sun King, Louis XIV, with a pair of silvery spider-silk stockings, woven from hundreds of painstakingly collected egg sacs. “The only difficulty now lies in procuring a sufficient quantity of Spiders Bags to make any considerable work of it,” Bon wrote in a letter to Britain’s Royal Society the following year. More than three centuries later, that not-so-inconsiderable difficulty has been overcome, and non-royals will, for the first time, have the opportunity to purchase their very own spider-silk apparel—specifically, a woven tie, dyed petrol blue and produced in a limited edition of fifty by Bolt Threads, a Bay Area-based biotechnology company.

Spiders, of course, have been producing silk for their own purposes for a very, very long time. According to Paul Hillyard, the author of “The Private Life of Spiders,” the earliest evidence of this comes from the three-hundred-and-eighty-million-year-old Devonian shale of New York State, where paleontologists found a spider’s fossilized rear end—a kind of arachnid showerhead with twenty spigots, through which the ancient spider would have pulled the silken filaments before combining them into a single thread. Since then, spider-kind has evolved seven different specialized silk glands. Male crab spiders make aciniform silk to tie up their lady friends before mating; female spiders weave silken tubuliform egg sacs; and trapdoor spiders produce special sticky silk globules with which to construct their heavy swing doors of layered earth and silk. The most versatile kind, though, is ampullate, or dragline, silk, which spiders use for abseiling and for framing their webs. In combination, these various silks can be used to create a seemingly infinite variety of forms: spider diving bells, spider sunshades, and even spider camouflage. (“A small, messy-looking patch of white silk” can appear surprisingly like a bird dropping, Hillyard observes.)

Human exploitation of spider silk has lagged behind the arachnid’s own ingenuity. The ancient Greeks reputedly used egg sacs to bandage wounds, and New Guinean fishermen are known to have woven the webs of orb spiders into nets. In apparel, though, the weaker threads of the silkworm have reigned supreme. Bon attributed this to humanity’s prejudice against “so dispicable an Insect,” but the more practical reason is that spiders have proved resistant to domestication. “Breeding Young Spiders in Rooms,” Bon noted, always ended the same way: they fought and ate each other. Which is a shame, because spider silk is something of a wonder material. Famously tough, it can be stronger than steel and more tear-resistant than Kevlar. Although a human can walk through a spider web with relative ease, that is because each strand is only three-thousandths of a millimetre in diameter. Scaled up to a full millimetre, it’s estimated that a spider web could catch a helicopter as effectively as it currently entraps flies. Spider silk is also extremely elastic and lightweight; some silks can stretch up to five times their length before breaking, and a strand long enough to encircle Earth would weigh just over a pound. The arachnids are excellent chemists, too, often imbuing their silks with water-wicking and antifungal properties.


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Photo:After centuries of failed attempts, one of nature’s strongest and stretchiest materials is finally within reach.PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY BOLT THREADS


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