October 14, 2009 / 1:13 AM / 10 years ago

Golden tapestry woven from spider silk goes on show

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A tapestry woven with the silk of more than 1 million spiders has been put on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York as scientists struggle to artificially replicate the strong, ductile material.

It took about 80 people around four years to produce the piece of golden fabric measuring 11 feet long by 4 feet wide which creators Nicholas Godley and Simon Peers describe as a unique work of art.

They said the only other known example of a spider silk tapestry was last seen on display in Paris more than a 100 years ago. It was subsequently lost and has not been seen since.

Godley, an American fashion expert, and Simon Peers, a textile maker who lives in Madagascar, took on the challenge after studying the work of French missionary Jacob Paul Comboue.

Comboue worked with spiders in Madagascar in the 1880s but had limited success with weaving their silk, also known as gossamer, as he tried to make silk in much the same way that silkworm cocoons have been used for centuries.

Godley says they studied Camboue’s writings and improved on his methods for extracting silk filament from golden orb spiders but they faced plenty of challenges along the way.

“Once we got started the big challenge was a logistical challenge, figuring out how to get so many spiders and doing so in obviously a sustainable way,” Godley told Reuters Television.

“The female spiders are cannibalistic, so they eat each other. So we originally tried to raise them which didn’t work. We started with 20 in the morning and the next morning we had five left. So collecting was the only option.”

Every morning 70 people set out to find the female golden orb spiders in and around the capital of Madagascar, collecting about 3,000 a day from telephone lines with long poles.

The next step was to draw the silk from the spiders. This was done by placing the spiders in a harness and gently drawing out the silk filament. Each spider produced about 80 feet of filament.

Then came the threading of the silk and the weaving, processes that took three long years to complete.

“The idea was to create a work of art. Given the amount of work from the spiders, we said let’s do something that is not just spectacular but is worthy of being in a museum and we are very lucky to have done it and to have achieved that,” Godley said.

Godley hopes the artwork will not only shine a light on the beauty of the spider silk, but also display its unique properties.

Spider silk’s tensile strength is greater than that of steel and it is also very ductile, able to stretch without breaking.

For years scientists have been trying to produce artificial spider silk, eyeing possible uses ranging from light-weight bullet proof vests to the next generation of space suits.

However, spider silk is difficult to mimic in a lab because the gossamer begins as a liquid in the spider’s silk gland and only gains its strength as a solid after a complicated course through the spider’s body.

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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