Silk From 1 Million Spiders Made This Gorgeous Cape

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

It's eccentric and completely outrageous but it is gorgeous. This cape, on display in the exhibition "Golden Spider Silk" at London's Victoria & Albert Museum through June 5, is made out of the threads that a spider uses to make its web. The colour is completely natural: exactly what comes out of the spider.

Some statistics: It took four years and one million spiders to make the cape, completed in 2011. Each morning 80 people in Madagascar go out and collect the female Golden Orb (Nephilo madagascariensis) spiders which are common to the highlands. The spiders are 2" in size and fit in the palm of your hand.

They are brought to the silking facility, and the "silk" which is emitted from the underside of the spider's abdomen is collected. You can get 40 yards of it from one spider. Then they take the spiders back out into nature in the afternoon and set them free. They are not hurt during the process.

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

The silk strands are collected and put onto the bobbins. It takes 24 strands to make a single thread. However this may be too fine so usually they use 96 strand thread. The spider silk thread is then woven on a loom. Whew!

So how did this happen. Two men, Simon Peers, a textile designer and researcher and Nicholas Godley, an entrepreneur, initiated the project. Simon Peers spoke to a rapt audience at the Museum about the work. He has lived in Madagascar for over twenty years and was fascinated by the weaving and textiles of the land. Peers wanted to revive the local traditions of weaving and whilst doing research stumbled upon the story of this extracted silk. It was an irresistible draw; he was hooked.

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

He explained that the idea is at least three hundred years old. The Solomon Islanders grabbed the webs with bamboo poles from the trees; they made masks from it as ritualistic objects.

It has been written about in text books, and Rube-Goldberg-like contraptions have been created by a French colonial administrator to do it (see above). At the end of the nineteenth century there was even a college to train spider silk weavers and then because of the many difficulties and expense the industry died out.

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

The two men worked for eight years to develop this project. In 2004 they started "silking" spiders and by 2008 it became a reality.

The first thing that they made out of the silk was this magnificent shawl. It took four years to complete and is woven from threads twisted from 96 individual spider strands. The heavier brocaded part is made from 960 twisted strands.

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

Then they moved onto the cape. Why a cape format? It was conceived by the designer as a homage to the spider using both embroidery and brocade. It is decorated with lovely spider images, flowers and a clasp that looks like a web.

The cape is superman and it is liturgical as well. It summarizes our conflicted views of spiders: on the one hand they are the stuff of nightmares and horror films, and on the other there is the poetry and beauty of the spider's web.

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