A golden cape of spider silk

January 13, 2012 • 8:30 am

by Matthew Cobb

This amazing garment sounds like it’s something from Lord of the Rings – a golden cape made from spider silk. Now on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, it’s the latest creation by a team from Madagascar, Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley.

This close-up gives you an idea of the detail in the embroidery:

Female golden orb spiders (Nephila madagascariensis) are collected by hand, brought back to the ‘spidery’ and then the silk is extracted from the spider in a tiny hand-cranked device for about 20 minutes. This produces about 80 foot of silk, and the spider is then returned, unharmed, to nature. The incredibly thin silk threads are then spun together to form a thread that can be used to weave and embroider with. Over a million spiders were used to make the cape. You can hear a brief item about it which was broadcast on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning.

A pair of Nephila Madagascariensis spiders used to make the Shawl.

Peers and Godley have previously exhibited their material in New York and Chicago, but this is the first time the embroidered cape has been displayed. They apparently got the idea from what sounds like a wacky 19th century Frenchman who lived on Madagascar, Jacob Paul Camboué.

Part of the delight of this material is that it is so difficult to obtain. Peers and Godley have managed to do it because they employ about 80 people to go out every day and collect the spiders. This is not exactly scalable to anything other than their present artistic production levels.

Because of the strength and lightness of spider silk, many people have attempted to bioengineer its production, for example by expressing spider silk genes in goat milk. These efforts were not terribly successful as the amount of silk produced was very small, and the silk had to be separated from the milk, and they are more than a letter apart in real life.

Last week, the PNAS published a paper by Teulé et al (abstract free, article $$$), in which they described the creation of transgenic silkworms that expressed silk genes from spiders. Silkworms are obviously naturally equipped to produce silk, and can be genetically manipulated. The researchers inserted a silk gene from another species of golden orb spider – Nephila clavipes – into the silkworm (this is more complicated than it sounds) and were then able to show that the silkworm was producing chimeric spider/silkworm silk. This last point is important – the silk produced by the genetically engineered silkworm is not spider silk. It is something new, and even though the amount of spider silk present was relatively low (2-5%, the chimeric fibre was in fact even tougher than both silkworm silk and normal spider silk.

For the moment though, it seems as though the only way you’ll get to wear spider silk is by going out and collecting a few million spiders…

The cape is on display at the V&A until June.

The video below is from an earlier display of Peers & Godley’s work, at the American Museum of Natural History:

53 thoughts on “A golden cape of spider silk

  1. I kind of wish they’d made something people could actually wear, because as much as people talk up the strength of spider silk, it would be interesting to know what characteristics you get when its incorporated into an actual fabric.

    But then, I’ve never even had a silkworm silk shirt, so I don’t know if those are more durable, or its just because they’re just really nice and soft.

  2. Thanks for the post heard the broadcast, however good to see the workmanship etc, also for posting the boatman song heard that on R4 yesterday. Keep up the good work 🙂

  3. We have Nephila clavipes here on the Gulf Coast. They are beautiful spiders, and the color of their silk can be seen even in the thinnest of webbing. They’re easy to “milk” for their silk too. I’ve had to move spiders before, to and I usually move them on the end of a straw broom. When they fall, I spin the broom. By the time I get them where I want them, the broom is wrapped in thick, golden silk.

      1. But christian priests are very familiar with setting hidden traps so wouldn’t a rope made of spider web be just the thing for gathering up little boys?

    1. It’s just a cape. The black background is just that – background. I also somewhat doubt that the spider designs would fit in very well with clerical costumes.

      Personally I don’t much like the design of the cape, although the embroidery is beautiful.

      Thank you Matthew for another really interesting post.

    1. That’s the best thing about making garments from spider silk: No hangers, take it off and stick it to the wall.

    2. Orb weavers, IIRC, produce both sticky & non-sticky threads, and use both to construct webs that will catch prey but also allow the spiders to travel on non-sticky paths.

      When I was reading this post I was wondering how/why it would be the non-sticky silk that was expressed…

  4. In Madagascar you can see THOUSANDS of Nephila gathered together. If there are several phones lines or cables or anything similar looping across a space between poles or buildings there can be one huge clot of silk massed over and around them, dotted with big, sluggish spiders. It is at first a beautiful sight, but I found myself getting increasing attacks if the shudders when I saw them – mainly due to a late night blunder into a low-hanging mass after a few too many three-horses beers and rum cocos.

  5. Jeff J–It’s not sticky because the weavers are using major ampullate silk, which is just one of several silks that Nephila spiders produce. Major ampullate silk is the dragline orb weavers use to make their web frame and radius lines and the silk they hang from when they’re trying to escape danger. Only the “capture spiral” in their webs is sticky, and then the flagelliform silk line itself is not sticky: the spider deposits aggregate silk protein glue along the line as it spins.

    1. Ah, thanks. So this is the type of silk collected because the spiders are in “trying to escape” mode at the time…

    1. Agreed, that’s amazing. I suppose it has something to do with what most “disappears” in terms of prey approaching webs in ambient light. How fortuitous that it should be so gorgeous.

      1. Sometimes–the yellow can make deep green leaves behind it look like young, tasty leaves. But flying insects actually have excellent sight, and there is good experimental evidence showing that they do see these yellow webs. Many insects actively avoid them. Many insects in the same species, though, are drawn to them. When you consider that they are also drawn to yellow flowers, a food source, it begins to make sense. This whole question of insect sight and web appearance evolving alongside each other is a huge one. We have a whole chapter about it: it was a major focus of the research of my co-author, Catherine L. Craig.

  6. Declaration of self-interest before I comment further: I’m the co-author of “Spider Silk,” which uses the evolution of spider silk to explain natural selection and evolution to non-biologists (if you’re interested, please click on my name to see our website).

    Not surprisingly, I agree that spiders are fascinating, and the more you find out about them, the more fascinating they are (like all science…). An orb weaver like the Nephila has multiple specialized silk glands, each of which produces silk for specific uses. They use one silk for wrapping egg cases and prey, another for attaching web lines to whatever they’re building on, and even another one to build a temporary capture spiral, which is used as a scaffold while they’re building. Most of these glands evolved relatively late in spider history. But plenty of spiders still thrive who can’t produce these silks–tarantulas, for just one example. Spiders are another example of Why Evolution Is True–even though some people use the orb web as an “obvious” (not!!) example of ID.

      1. They’re looking at other kinds. Most interest has centered on MA silk and flagelliform silk, but, for example, aciniform silk, used to wrap egg cases and prey, is very tough. Matthew Cobb has explained why collecting natural silk isn’t scalable in any economical way. And synthesizing spider silk has been a lot more difficult than I think many people first thought when they started transplanting genes. But I’m sure it will happen eventually.

    1. And it’s available on Kindle so I have bought it. I will read it as soon as I have finished “Better Angels”. 🙂

    2. Fascinating! Delighted to have “made the acquaintance” of you & your co-author and have added your book to my wish list.

  7. It may very well be based on a priestlyish cape: The “wacky 19th century Frenchman who lived on Madagascar, Jacob Paul Camboué” Was actually a Jesuit who fell in love with Madagascar and its natural history, and published dozens of papers and observations on local flora and fauna, especially spiders and invertebrates. Though he patented a method of spider silk production, and even went so far as to make a tapestry in the 1800s, The tapestry is long since vanished, and it failed to take off as an industry. But preistly or not, OMGato Do I Want That Cape.

    Here btw is a brief account about Camboué’s scientific work. He does seem like quite a character: http://www.dacb.org/stories/madagascar/camboue_paul.html

    1. What compellingly intriguing stories this thread is eliciting! Thank you.

      And “OMGato”–too perfect! How quintessentially WEIT-ian. I move we adopt this along with “cephalothoraxpedipalping.”

  8. I build model airplanes and cover them with very thin silk fabric. I am anxiously awaiting availability of the hybrid spider-silkworm silk for my purposes.

  9. ooh, I’m looking at some of the molecular components of spider silk structure and it is beautiful; tough, anchored beta sheets between gooey free-spirited helices.

    1. Yes, quite amazing! You’ll see that if you look at major ampullate protein structure. But if you look at earlier evolved spider silk proteins–for example, at the silk made by a Euagrus spider–you find a much more disorganized sequence. That’s partly what makes spiders such a great way to look at natural selection at both the genetic level and as individuals struggle for survival.

      1. So the ancestral spider had a sequence of the disorganized variety like that of the Euagrus spider alive today? How do the varieties differ in function? Is one stronger than the other, and does that provide an advantage? Thanks for the info!

        1. Yes, although even the comparably disorganized sequence of Euagrus is organized enough that it forms fibers strong enough for the spider to create a funnel web. Tracing back, it would seem that the ancestral spider probably produced a single silk protein that was even more disorganized than Euagrus. Jessica Garb and other researchers are working on sequences of spiders that belong to an even earlier-evolved suborder, the mesothele spiders, so when their results are out we should know more.

          As different spider silks have evolved, their structures have diversified as they have been selected for specialization. So, for example, these golden orb weavers produce a number of different silks proteins–more than 6. They produce major ampullate silk, whose structure gives rise to great strength. They also produce flagelliform silk, which evolved later than MA silk, and it’s quite strong but also very extensible.

            1. I mean that although MA silk protein has a very long sequence, it contains short sequence repeats, and there’s a limited number of amino acids within those repeats. It’s all that repeating that leads to the interlocking that manifests as beta sheets. Specifically, there are lots of AAAAA and GA subsequences, both of which are known to build into beta sheets. In contrast, the Euagrus sequence has a comparably much longer repeat and contains many more different amino acids. There are proportionately fewer AA.. subsequences and very few GA subsequences. If you take a look at our book at Google Books, it’s the difference between what you see in Figure 15 and what you see in Figure 17.

              1. That’s just the limit of the comment levels. It’s good because the alternative is very long(length) skinny comments.

                Thanks for the interesting discussion!

  10. The first Malagasy ambassadorial delegation to visit England after the British government recognized the kingdom brought as a present for Queen Victoria a pair of stockings woven from spider silk. They probably though the golden colour was just the thing for royalty. Wonder if she ever wore them,though? More prosaically, the queen’s present to the Malagasy king was a china tea service which can still be seen today in the summer palace.

  11. probably the colour and strength of this silk makes this clothing amazing and mystic.. since most spiders silk has the same abilities and strength or softness you could hear in the future clothing made out from argiopes, black widows, even segestrias silk … clothes out of spiders very expensive indeed a story out from a book of Tolkien

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