Items made of spider silk have a strange but alluring appeal around the world despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that many people around the world live in terror of the eight-legged creatures. Spider silk clothing is considered the rarest type of garment, since thread made of spider silk is extremely difficult to make. Certain spiders, like the gorgeous Golden Orb Weaver whose silk is frequently used, sadly don't thrive outside of the wild, and are hard to domesticate and control.
Despite its fragility, uses of spider silk throughout history are both extensive and impressive. Some cultures have been very creative in their uses of the humble spider web, creating everything from fishing lures to violin strings to bandages to canvases for paint. Items made from spider webs have seen use in the fields of science, medicine, spirituality, and art.
Although these fascinating items from the past may have been way ahead of their time, spiderweb silk might yet be the "textile of the future." Items using spider silk are high-craft rarities and not mainstream, but fascinating uses of spiderwebs are creeping into the modern era, with scientific research utilizing more gossamer technology. There's even talk of spider-based bulletproof clothing, and more on the horizon.
In 1898, a set of gorgeous spider silk bed hangings was put on display at the Paris Exposition. They were made by a monk named Father Jacob Paul Camboué and his business partner M. Nogué. Father Camboué was a French Jesuit missionary living in Madagascar, and they used the Golden Orb Weaver spiders that were common to the area (Camboué was also the fellow who invented a machine that could extract silk form 24 spiders at once). The goal was to prove that Europeans could produce silk as well as the Chinese and their silkworms could. Camboué's bed curtains were marvels, the first successful attempt at creating full pieces of fabric from spider silk. Sadly, they have been lost to time.
Dr. Shigeyoshi Osaki, a Japanese researcher, managed to produce violin strings using spider silk in 2012. To form each string, he twisted together 3 strands made up of between 3,000 and 5,000 individual threads of silk. Violinists claim that the strings have a lovely, softer sound that is different than other tradition string materials. Dr. Osaki also used the Golden Orb Weavers' silk, and had to go through a precise calibration technique to test each strand's ability to withstand tension. He did his job well: the strings are sturdy enough to not break mid-song. It doesn't, however, make them any more viable for wider distribution.
The man responsible for creating the first piece of cloth made from spider silk, Father Jacob Paul Camboué, also created a crafty way of extracting the spider's silk. The hand-made machine that he put together could pull the silk from 24 spiders at one time, without harming their delicate bodies. The spiders were all released after their silk ran out, and more spiders were caught to fill the machine again. The modern makers of spider silk fabrics use a machine based on this original model.
During the 1500s in the Tyrolean Alps of Austria and Northern Italy, peasants and monks alike used to wander through the mountains looking for spiders and caterpillars to gather their webs. They then used the tiny thread to create incredibly delicate canvases layer by layer. The paintings on these canvases had to be done extremely carefully, with delicate brushes being used so as not to tear the fabric. The most delicate paintings were considered more highly valuable.