A parallel Worlds

Sunday February 26 2012 / Science & Technology

Since the end of January, visitors to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London have been able to marvel at Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley’s wonderful exhibition: A superb, golden spider-silk cape.

The sumptuous garment took over three years to create, from collecting the 1.2 million female Madagascan golden orb spiders needed to make the naturally-coloured yellow silk, to the hand-weaving and hand-embroidering of the cape itself.

Peers and Godley, a Briton and an American who have lived in Madagascar for a number of years, also created the hand-operated machine for extracting silk from the spiders, based on a design from over a century ago.

“There was a certain madness in launching into something like this,”
says Peers. “In 300 years, the very few eccentric people who had tried it had fallen by the wayside because it's just too much really. The fact that it was such a huge challenge was part of the appeal.”

The spiders were collected individually in the wild, kept alive, and then harnessed and milked. Each one produced between 30 and 50 metres of thread, taking 25 minutes to extract, before being released back into nature.

“We maybe had 60 to 80 people every day looking for spiders to collect,”
says Peers. “Then the whole process of extracting – ‘silking’ or milking – involved a number of people.

“And there are another group of people involved with transforming the silk, plus the weavers and embroiderers and so forth. So there were a lot of people involved in this story.”

The spiders are big enough to fill the palm of your hand, while their eyes are only able to vaguely detect changes in light, meaning they are almost blind. All varieties of Golden orb spiders, not just the Madagascan variety, produce the fantastic, yellow-coloured silk from which the cape was made.

“This is the invisibility cloak,”
says Peers. “You literally cannot feel it. It’s quite extraordinary. I think one of the reasons for that is that if you get a cross-section of the silk you can see it’s perfectly cylindrical, unlike that produced by the Chinese silk worm which has got an irregular, triangular cross-section.” 

But why make, specifically, a cape from this incredible material?

“The choice of the cape was because it’s a familiar garment, but at the same time it’s slightly unfamiliar because not many people actually put capes on,” says Peers. 

“In early childhood you read nursery rhymes which have spiders in. There is something of that fairytale aspect to this I think. There’s also a link to the comic book super heroes, the cape and the Spiderman; a sort of amusing nod in that direction.

“But then there’s also an element of ritual about it, a sort of dalmatic or chasuble of a priestly robe of some sort. So the cape lent itself to one’s imagination in terms of rights and rituals.

“The spider also features in a lot of mythology and a lot of ancient cultures saw the spider as the creator of the cosmos, so part of the idea is the spider creating a paradise, which is the garden represented by the embroidered flowering.”

Peers adds: “This cape isn’t about fashion. This is about creating something extraordinary, magical and unique. It is a one-off and we’re privileged to have been part of something where you can say ‘no one else has done it’.”

‘Golden Spider Silk’ is on display at the V&A Museum in London until June 5th, 2012 -  admission is free.

For more information, please visit: www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/g/golden-spider-silk/



Suggested by
Ian Skellern