No, this is not a Halloween prank. Spider web fabric is a real thing. Brands such as The North Face and Patagonia have invested in this spider silk fabric that is tougher than both nylon and Kevlar and feels great against the skin.
Ok, so it’s not REAL spider silk we’re talking about here but a synthetic version. California-based Bolt Threads has come up with a way to artificially replicate the spider silk production process both sustainably and on a very large scale.
Bolt Threads first studied silk proteins found in nature to determine what gives them their incredible properties. Taking this information, they were then able to produce the protein in large quantities through fermentation — using a gene-modified yeast, sugar, salts, and water. The result is a liquid silk. After some processing, the liquid silk protein is turned into fiber through wet-spinning, which is the same way fibers like acrylic and rayon are made.
These fibers are then knit or woven into fabrics and eventually made into garments. The whole process enables Bolt Threads to optimize the silk for specific attributes, like strength, stretch or softness, depending on application. The fabrics combine the best qualities of silk, but look and feel quite different from traditional silk, and are also easier to wash and wear (no dry cleaning required).
So why go to all this trouble to produce synthetic spider silk, anyway? The key is in performance and sustainability, one of the main reasons Patagonia has taken an interest. Apparel made from the fabric is both softer and longer-lasting, and offers better protection from a variety of elements. The main input in the fiber-making process is sugar from plants that are grown, harvested and replanted. Compare this to polyester which is made from petroleum — currently, more than 60% of textiles are made of polyester and other petroleum-derived fibers. That needs to change.
Bolt Threads isn’t the only company trying to re-create spider silk en masse. Japanese startup Spiber is marketing a similar fiber and worked with The North Face on their Moon Parka for those living and working in Antarctica. German company Amsilk is also developing commercial grade spider silk.
Expect to see the first Patagonia spider silk pieces in the near future.