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Future tech

Spider silk: the bullet-stopping, plane-catching fabric that’s got the fashion world spinning

Appearing in parkas, capes, ties and even a dress by Stella McCartney, spider silk can be used to make material tougher than Kevlar – but harvesting it can be a problem, what with the creatures’ tendency to eat each other

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 October, 2017, 7:41pm

If you have ever walked into the web of a golden orb-weaver while hiking on Lantau Island, you may have noticed a stiff resistance. As the tension gives, the snap and the stain that may show on your shirt prove that spider silk can be no pushover.

In fact, spider silk can be used to make material tougher than Kevlar, the bulletproof jacket fabric, and just about all other known fibres besides.

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A spider web “made of pencil-thick, spider-silk fibres can catch a fully loaded Jumbo Jet Boeing 747 with a weight of 380 tonnes,” states biotech firm Amsilk.

High-performance textile firms are starting to exploit the substance. The North Face teamed up with Tokyo-based Spiber to create a biotech concept jacket called the Moon Parka. Priced at US$1,000, the parka is created from genetically engineered silk-protein DNA sequences which researchers insert into bacteria that are then fed sugar. The extraordinary item has a luminous “moon gold” sheen ascribed to the hue of the orb-weaver’s silk on which the material is based.

Spiber’s most visible rival in the spider-silk space is California-based start-up Bolt Threads, which works its magic with lab-made, protein-based spider yarn.

“We believe that answers to our most vexing problems can be found in nature,” the company says. “Every day we’re inspired by the amazing materials we work with, and driven by the desire to turn these materials into incredible products.”

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Bolt Threads partnered with fashion designer Stella McCartney to make a unique, spider-silk custom dress that is currently on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in an exhibition called “Items: Is Fashion Modern”?

The company is also the creative force behind a spider-silk tie worn by LA Galaxy soccer star Robbie Rogers, who doubles as a male model. The tie’s appearance is ruggedly fleecy and homespun, yet also geometric.

But the most eye-catching spider-silk creation produced so far must be the luminous yellow cape made from the silk of 1.2 million golden orb spiders created by American fashion designer Nicholas Godley and British textile expert Simon Peers.

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Worthy of a superhero, the spider-silk cape was displayed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2012.

“We had 24 spiders harnessed up – the spindle was going, and silk was coming out,” Peers told CNN about the time they realised spider silk could really be used as a material. “That was our eureka moment. We were over the moon.”

The cape is almost weightless “like an invisibility cloak”, according to Godley, who admits to being scared of spiders because they bite and some are poisonous. Other things that make them difficult to work with are their tendency to cannibalise each other and their tiny size, which makes them tricky to milk.

Despite these difficulties, high-performance spider-silk textiles are surfacing in ever more places, including in the back of a seat of a Lexus car. The concept seat, designed to absorb energy on impact, apparently boosts comfort and stabilises the field of vision, meaning more alert driving.

In future, as the trend gathers steam, soldiers may be equipped with spider-silk gear that acts as sophisticated armour. The concept reflects that a web is designed to intercept nature’s own airborne missiles: flies.

Biologist Randy Lewis, whose team at Utah State University has been commissioned to produce spider silk for the US army, backs up Amsilk’s claims in saying that a spider silk rope just a few centimetres thick could stop a 747 jetliner.

“Most of the claims made are reasonable, with bulletproof vests being the big exception. There is no question the silk would stop a bullet, but due to the stretch of the fibres it will likely be on the wrong side of your chest,” Lewis says.

“The true uniqueness of spider dragline silk is its combination of strength and stretch which is unmatched by any other fibre,” he adds.

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As advances continue, how cool would it be to see friendly neighbourhood accessories: sucker pads, say, that let the wearer scale heights – just like you know who.