One million wild spiders spun this yarn

A spectacular and extremely rare textile, woven from naturally golden-colored silk thread produced by more than one million spiders in Madagascar, went on display today in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

“This magnificent contemporary textile, measuring 11 feet by 4 feet, took four years to make using a painstaking technique developed more than 100 years ago,” AMNH said in a statement.


Photo of spider silk textile by R. Mickens/courtesy American Museum of Natural History 

“This unique textile was created drawing on the legacy of a French missionary, Jacob Paul Camboué, who worked with spiders in Madagascar in the 1880s and 1890s.

“Camboué worked to collect and weave spider silk but with limited success, and no surviving textile is now known to exist.

“Previously, the only known spider-silk textile of note was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and it was subsequently lost.”

Webs on telephone wires

Producing the spider silk—the only example of its kind displayed anywhere in the world—involved the efforts of 70 people who collected spiders daily from webs on telephone wires, using long poles, AMNH said.

“These spiders were all collected during the rainy season (the only time when they produce silk) from Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, and the surrounding countryside.

“These giant spider webs are a well-known feature of the capital, and frequently surprise international visitors.”

“These giant spider webs are a well-known feature of the capital, and frequently surprise international visitors.”

A dozen more people were needed to draw the silk from the spiders with hand-powered machines, with each spider producing about 80 feet of silk filament, the museum explained.


Photo of spider silk textile by R. Mickens/courtesy American Museum of Natural History 

“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.”

In this unique lamba cloth, the individual threads used for weaving are made by twisting 96 to 960 individual spider silk filaments together.


Photo of spider silk textile by R. Mickens/courtesy American Museum of Natural History 


Fast facts about spider silk

golden-silk-orb-spider-picture.jpgBy the American Museum of Natural History

  • The silk fiber was gathered from the female golden orb spider (Nephila madagascariensis), which is renowned for the lustrous golden hue of its silk fiber. The male spider does not produce silk.
  • The golden orb spider of Madagascar is one of about 36 members of the Nephila genus. These spiders are found throughout the tropics and are known as golden orb weavers for their big, gold-colored webs. The webs can often be seen between telephone and electrical wires—and are sometimes large enough to span a one-lane road.
  • Almost all silk fabric is made from silkworm moth cocoons, but people have occasionally tried to make cloth from spider silk. One of the biggest challenges is the cannibalistic nature of spiders, which makes it very difficult to raise them in captivity, unlike silkworms. Spiders can be collected in the wild and then placed in a device to keep them still so the silk can be drawn. Afterward, the spiders are released back into the wild.
  • For its weight, spider silk is stronger than steel, but—unlike steel—it can stretch up to 40 percent of its normal length. Scientists are trying to produce this intriguing material artificially on a large scale for possible uses on the battlefield, in surgery, for space exploration, and elsewhere.
  • Since raising spiders has proven difficult, researchers are investigating ways to replicate spider silk to avoid harvesting. However, spider silk is difficult to mimic in a lab because the silk begins as a liquid in the spider’s gland, becoming a remarkably strong, water-resistant solid after following a complicated course through the spider’s interior.

Golden-silk spider (Nephila clavipes) photo courtesy USGS

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn

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