Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Pick - Arachnophobes, Look Away Now

Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Pick - Arachnophobes, Look Away Now

Article excerpt

Golden Spider Silk

Victoria and Albert Museum, London Until 5 June

The idea of weaving clothes out of spider silk has long been something of an eccentric fantasy.

In 1710, Francois-Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire presented knitted pairs of stockings and gloves along with a paper to the Societe Royale de Science in Montpellier, but research indicated that silk from French spiders was not commercially viable. A Spanish missionary in Paraguay in the 1760s discovered a way of putting spiders in stocks so as to unwind the thread directly from their spinnerets. And a French missionary in Madagascar began to carry out more extensive experiments in the late 19th century on the local golden orb weaver spider. The result was an extraordinary bed swathed in spider-silk cloth presented as a Madagascan contribution to the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900.

As this may suggest, art historian and textile expert Simon Peers - who runs the Peers weaving workshop in Madagascar - was embarking on quite a challenge when he decided to create the two fabulous textiles at the heart of this exhibition. Carnivorous and cannibalistic, spiders are virtually impossible to "farm", since they immediately start eating each other. And their threads are far from easy to weave once tension makes them thin and elastic.

The solution was to employ a team of about 80 people, who went out collecting spiders each day. These were then put into special "silking" contraptions, where handlers were able to extract silk from 24 spiders at a time, before releasing them the same evening. …

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