The silk that spider produces could be your next dress

Shutterstock.com/ Fernando Cortes

It is incredible to think that when a spider crafts a web or hangs from a single line in our house it is doing so with silk. The luxury item that we pay incredibly high amounts for a silk dress or silk pair of gloves is literally hanging from our ceiling. Could this silk really be used for high fashion purposes or what is the catch?

The silk that spiders weave is incredibly strong for its size. It could be used for clothing items and would be highly regarded. The silk that comes from a spider is very high in protein and more elastic and waterproof than conventional silk. Yet no one has ever created a business based on spider silk.

The reason is very simple, spiders don’t produce silk in high enough quantities to make it worthwhile. While you could just get an incredible number of spiders to allow you to have enough silk, the willingness of the spiders to eat each other and eat their own webs makes the process far too complicated. Instead to produce silk for commercial purposes we use silkworms. Spider’s silk has been used for a fishing line in the past and scientists often use it as inspiration when they create new synthetic materials, yet to date, they have not been successful in recreating the perfect spider web material.

Silkworms are just better at doing things at scale. One ounce of silkworm eggs contains about 40,000 eggs in total. These eggs will develop into full worms and they will spin cocoons in around five days that will produce 8kgs of silk. If you have 2,000 silkworms you will have enough to make a full dress. Compare this to the spider and the process takes much longer.

In 2009 a gold cape was woven from the silk of spiders. It required 1.2 million golden orb spiders and went on display at a museum once it was completed. The special spiders produce naturally gold threads and were hooked up to machines to allow the threads to be extracted before they were released into the wild. This incredible method shows that crafting clothing items from spider silk is possible, just not easy. In fact, for many years in the ages of Kings and Queens, it was done to show how much the people loved their royal rulers. 

In the 1800s Napoleon and his wife were gifted a number of items made from spider silk. Louis XIV is also reported to have sanctioned an entire suit be made from spider silk for him. While these stories are so crazy that they are likely true it does not mean that a spider silk factory is going to open up anytime soon. The economies simply do not make sense.

Spiders use their silk weaving skills to create the webs they live on, the bungee cords they hang from, the cocoons they wrap around their prey and nests to protect their eggs. While all of these purposes require a lot of silk, it is not enough to justify using it for commercial reasons. In addition, the spider will produce a different type of silk for each purpose. The silk they use to catch prey is incredibly sticky while the silk they use to hang from is far stronger. 

A spider produces silk from seven different glands. Meaning it can produce seven types of silk. The fluid passes through a spider’s organs and comes out of its spigots as a fine thread. This is very different from the silkworm who produces silk threads from its mouth. The reality is that if you try very hard you may be able to use all that spider webbing in your house to make something beautiful, it will just take a lot of work. Please email any pictures if you decide to give it a go.