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Fibre & Fabrics

Signs of innovation – the example of Spider Silk

The golden orb cape on the loom

The Golden Spider Silk being woven; on average, 23,000 spiders yield around 1 ounce of silk ((c) Photo: John Brown, via The Telegraph)

The current fashion and textile landscape is fairly limited in terms of what types of materials are being used: Over 80% of fibres used in textile and apparel manufacturing are of but 2 types – cotton, and polyester. The remaining less than 20% are in majority again oil-based man-made fibres such as polyamide, acrylic, elasthane etc.

This is – for the industry overall – fairly bad news, for at least two reasons:
1) Because oil is a finite resources. And will rather sooner than later run out. Granted, new deposits are still found, and with fracking new technologies come into play. But oil was created over millions of years, and the existing despsits are being depleted at a rather astonishing rate. The days of polyester & co. are hence in essence counted.
2) Cotton is a crop, and in that competes with food and bio fuel crops for land. We know for certain already that more people than ever imaginable will have to be fed within only a few years. And that while the land is available, and could – potentially – still feed them, access to land for non-food crop will become considerably more competitive. Importantly: fuel alternatives to oil will probably be 2nd in priority because of world trade and our need for communication. Remains to say that cotton and other cultivation fibre crops may face some dire times ahead.

The farbics and textile industry is hence, unsurpringsly, looking around for alternatives. Some of these developments, such as Lyocel (Tencel), have been known for a while, and their record sales figures speak their own success language. Tencel inventor Lenzing more recently doubled up with a product called Modal, proving that the market is far from static and satisfied.

Another such area of high-potential and heavy R&D developments is bio-plastics where fashion and textile targetted products have been brought quite successfully to market in the course of the past 2, 3 years. Example of such products are Ingeo and Sorona (with the latter already used in denims).

Another such innovation strand in natural fibres particularly is that of spider silk. Research into spider silk and its application in industry – mostly medical – is not new (check this spider silk video out for what we are at with research). And so far it has been impossible to acquire the knowledge to recreate spider silk artificially. Spider silk is interesting because of its weight/strength ration (5 times stronger than steel), that interestingly doesn’t compromise elasticity. At the same time it is a fibre essentially ‘manufactured’ out of leaves and flies, is stored as a liquid in a ‘container’ before use, and the mere withdrawal of just H2O (water) turns it into a perfectly suitable, highly stress resilient but easily bio-degradable organic material.

How spiders actually do it is to the day the expertise of mythology as well as than science. Only very recently have researchers discovered what makes spider silk as elastic and strong as it is. Nearly at the same time the first competitive man-made spider silk fiber, called Biosteel, made entirely from recombinant silk proteins, was launched as product onto the textile market. Only a year earlier a genetic experiment with exactly the same aim hit the headlines: Genetically engineered goats that had spider DNA in them, and would produce milk containing spider silk protein.

Interview with Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley at the occasion of the display of the Golden Orb Spider Silk cape at London's V&A museum in early 2012. ((c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

While high-end fashion is interested in spider silk for its drape, beauty and exclusivity (watch this video for details on the process of how the silk for the Golden Orb cape is obtained), the large scale funds and investments come from a completely different pocket: it is the different national defence agencies – and to a lesser degree medical multinationals – that are interested in this fibre. It’s strength thereby is but one aspect. Additionally it is its high-performance charactiersitics (elasticitc, stress reslience – bullets anyone?) that attracts their attention. And the fact that spiders are virtually anywhere.
Staring at goats was the past. In the future the military may consider staring at spiders instead.

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