Gennady Oreshkin rappels out of reach on the fashionest, “inspinite” wonder of spider silk
In May 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled an exhibition of European and American prints, drawings, illustrated books and antique wallpaper designs. Alongside works by Rembrandt, Castiglione and Dürer was a 19th-century etching on a stone plate by the American artist Otto Henry Bacher, titled Arachne and depicting a nude woman whose long hair merges into a web. The piece is inspired by the namesake Greek myth of a mortal who challenged Athena to a weaving contest and was transformed into a spider for her impudence.
Among the other fascinating works in the exhibition were Vija Celminis’ Web 2 print, Candace Wheeler’s Spider Web in black ink, pale-yellow gouache and graphite, and Henry Weston Keen’s pen composition Spider, Web, Snake and Flowers. The least literal piece in the arachniad was Spider Woman by Louise Bourgeois – unfortunately no relation to the Tony Award-winning Spider Woman, Chita Rivera.
Before becoming Anna Wintour’s favourite breakfast food (or at least according to comedian Kevin Zak), spiders were a subject of reverence and fascination for countless artists, poets and musicians. Now, the eight-legged creatures are all the rage in textile design. It’s relatively easy to make spiders do things and, sometimes, even make things on behalf of their captors. Say, for example, you were Berlin-based architect Tomás Saraceno. If so, you’d capture three spiders from distinctly different breeds and make them create an installation over 18 months. And what an impressive one!
Lest we forget, these creatures are weavers, not architects, even though their web – or, in other words, spider silk – might be the strongest structural material on a molecular scale. Darwin’s orb-weaving bark spider (caerostris Darwini) can spin webs that are considered the toughest biological material ever studied, able to trap multiple large aquatic insects at once. All spider silks possess impressive strength and elasticity, thanks to proteins called spidroins, which are vaguely similar in their molecular structure to human collagen and keratin. Such properties have inspired innovators and avant-gardists to work these proteins into their garments. And while it’s virtually impossible to force spiders to build a garment from scratch, harvesting silk from golden orb weavers to make a glamorous gold cape à la Chinese couturier Guo Pei is not beyond the realms of “reasonable”. That much was proved by Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley, when their pièce de résistance was inducted into the Victoria and Albert Museum. “I’ve been fascinated by spider silk since I saw the gold spider-silk cape of the V&A museum that took more than one million golden orb-weaver spiders three years to make,” says couture’s chief innovator, Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, of the garment.
What stops us from farming millions of spiders and harvesting their precious silks to make even more precious garments on a commercial scale? Cannibalism. Some species of spider are known to consume their partners post copulation (for example, the black widow), while others snack on their siblings (redback spiders) or mothers (stegodyphus lineatus). Goliath birdeaters don’t, though – maybe someone should look into employing them as seamstresses. Spider cannibalism was one of the reasons it took Peers and Godley three years to make one cape.
Van Herpen sees tremendous potential in the modified version of the material. “Spider silk harvested from real spiders is not feasible or even realistic for multiple garments, but synthetic spider silk is a hot topic,” she says. “We’re in dialogue with Spiber to explore how we can make it work in our designs and couture process.”
Thanks to the novel discipline of synthetic biology, scientists can now use genetic information encoded in spidroins to recreate their properties in vitro, which is precisely what Japanese materials innovation company Spiber does with its Brewed Protein. Founded by two Keio University graduates in bioinformatics, Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara, Spiber spearheads innovation in the protein-based materials space. We’re told they came to the idea over a drink, while fantasising about the toughest materials on the planet.
The principles of synthetic biology rest upon Recombinant DNA Technology, which enables modification of the properties of protein polymers by altering their amino acid sequences. Just like that, your Brewed Protein boxers may, in theory, become antibacterial. Yamagata-based Spiber uses a library of thousands of genetic samples from a variety of arachnids and insects as a base for devising an inventory of materials, from textiles to “leather”, “fur” and even “plastic”. Before Brewed Protein takes up its usual yarn-like shape, the modified DNA that encodes the protein itself is “fed” to bacteria. The bacteria of choice then express the desired protein, which is purified and ready to be spun into yarn. More or less. Interestingly, the name Brewed Protein comes from the process bacteria must undergo to express said polymer.
Since 2019, Spiber has been collaborating with Japanese haute couture designer Yuima Nakazato. “[We] provide materials [to be used in his] collections to present in Paris,” Spiber’s representative, Ayana Nakajima, tells me. “[He leverages] our materials’ super contraction property to create a 3D look,” she adds. The designer implements Fujifilm Inkjet technology to create UV-responsive prints on his patterns that destabilise Brewed Protein textile’s natural super-contraction properties, making the untouched areas of fabric shrink when exposed to water, allowing for mesmerising shapes impossible with conventional cutting-and-sewing methods. “This also allows the garment to fit the model perfectly,” says Nakajima.
Such super-contraction is by far the biggest drawback associated with spider-silk materials. Spiber, however, made progress in tackling the phenomenon with – you guessed it – Recombinant DNA Technology, as attested by the Moon Parka created in collaboration with The North Face in 2019. “You know, if the jacket starts shrinking when it gets wet, that’s a problem,” says Nakajima. “That’s when we started modifying our amino-acid sequences of protein materials.” She also confesses that simply mimicking a biological material may not go as far as building upon it to produce something extraordinary.
The beneficiaries of Spiber’s technology number not only Yuima Nakazato, sacai, The North Face and Pangaia, but also, gauche as it might sound, the planet. “[Sekiyama and Sugahara] think [Brewed Protein] could be a potential material that can replace petrochemicals,” adds Nakajima. Recombinant spider-silk materials are proven to degrade in seawater and soil at a rate similar to pure cotton fibres, though the exact time might vary depending on the family of spidroins they are based on and the magnitude of genetic manipulations. That said, such variations hardly reach the statistically significant threshold of, say, polyester.
For Spiber, hoping that Brewed Protein will one day replace all petroleum-based synthetic fabrics isn’t enough. “We’re proposing this programme called biosphere circulation,” Nakajima reveals. “We’d collect cellulose or petrochemical-based materials like cotton and break them down into glucose or amino acids for [bacteria to uptake as] nutrients.” Then the production cycle repeats, creating more Brewed Protein and consuming more discarded cotton. Nakajima also adds that this method is suitable only for pure materials, because blends (especially synthetic ones) can’t be broken down as easily.
Who knows? Maybe one day spiders and their storytelling yarns will become the core pillar of the luxury economy. Or, at the very least, generate as much interest as pictures of pixelated monkeys or Grimes’s secret baby.