Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Making the insubstantial substantial

This weekend I went through my MA research in search of Penny Dransart's incomparable work on Andean camelid herding, and got distracted by my books on ancient Peruvian textiles. Most often made with alpaca wool, their weaving techniques were incredibly sophisticated, and I've never seen their match.

Now imagine the awe a textile geek like me experienced this morning when I saw the cloth pictured above. I didn't even know weaving like this was possible, and curators know of only one other textile of its kind, which was exhibited in 1900 and subsequently lost. So what makes it so impressive? It's made entirely of spider silk!

Made in Madagascar from the silk of more than one million female golden orb spiders, it took almost one hundred people four years to produce—and yes, that is its natural colour. (Stunning!)

"The task of silking a spider starts with a small machine — designed centuries ago when the first attempts to silk spiders were begun — that holds the spider down. 'The spiders are harnessed ... held down in a delicate way,' Godley says, 'so you need people to do this who are very tactile so the spiders are not harmed. So there's a chain of about 80 people who go out every morning at four o'clock, collect spiders, we get them in by 10 o'clock. They're in boxes, they're numbered, and then as they get silked, about 20 minutes later, they get released back into nature'."

"Peers picks up the thread of the story. 'It's called dragline silk,' he says. 'A spider can produce up to seven different types of silk. The dragline is what frames the web; it's the thicker silk on the outside. Also, it's extremely strong. The first panel that we wove, we were quite stunned by the fact that it sounded a bit like guitar strings, pinging like metallic guitar strings. I mean, it is a very, very unusual material.' A very careful person simply pulls the thread out of each spider and wraps it on a spindle. It's then put on a hand loom and woven. The main threads consist of 96 twisted silk lines. The brocaded patterns in the tapestry — stylized birds and flowers — are woven with threads made up of 960 spider silk lines. Peers says they never broke a single strand, yet the tapestry is as soft as cashmere."

"This intricately-patterned spider silk features stylized birds and flowers and is based on a weaving tradition known as lamba Akotifahana from the highlands of Madagascar, an art reserved for the royal and upper classes of the Merina people (who are concentrated in the Central highlands). Silkworm silk has been used for a long period in Madagascar, however, there is no tradition of weaving spider silk in Madagascar."

The textile is currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. There's also a short video about it at the link above, worth watching if only to hear about how sticky the material feels. Cool.


Blogger Chris said...

I didn't know anyone was weaving with spider silk, although of course it's perfectly possible to do so. There's not a great deal of difference of process here compared to silkworms, but I can't help but wonder what the material feels like... I find silk sharp to the touch, and quite unpleasant to hold (which my wife finds very strange!)

Thanks for sharing this!


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