What could possibly drive two men to spend $500,000 of their own money over four years, become employers of a million female spiders, and rekindle an indigenous tradition on the island of Madagascar? The answer: To create an incredibly beautiful artifact that is unique in the world.
The American Museum of Natural History is currently exhibiting a 11-foot-by-4-foot tapestry made completely of spider silk. In this age of everything being “awesome,” it is so wonderful to see something that truly is. If you are arachnophobic, seeing this beautiful cloth might cure you just in time for Halloween.
This daring idea was conceived by Simon Peers, a British art historian and textile expert, and Nicholas Godley, an American fashion designer, both of whom who live in Madagascar. In 2004, they began a seemingly impossible mission to harness spiders to make silk in the same way that silkworms have been used for thousands of years.
The female golden orb spider (Nephila madagascariensis) is large, with long articulated legs. The female is particularly nasty and cannibalistic which makes herding large numbers of them a difficult task. And yes, they bite but apparently it is not dangerous.
This design marvel is an astonishing fusion of science, art, craft, and I imagine, incredible dexterity. The tapestry gets its golden color from the spider’s silk which is naturally a saffron hue. The fabric is not dyed. The silk, which is hardly visible when extracted from the spider’s spinneret, by hand, is then carefully woven strand by strand into a thread for use on a loom. Dozens of native Malagasy “handlers” are employed in the spider collection, harnessing, silk extraction and weaving. A rich pattern of subtle geometric shapes that reference traditional images of animals and birds are intricately woven into the golden fabric.
Scientists have long pondered the industrial potential for spider silk because of its tensile strength, which is 5-6 times that of steel by weight. The belief is that it could have beneficial applications in medicine, space exploration and the military.
And what do the spiders get in return? Not much. However, Godley and Peers were quoted in the New York Times, saying, “We have become sort of the defenders of these spiders, something we never thought we would be.” They keep careful records on spider use and daily release.
The installation at the museum is unremarkable and it leaves one wishing there was more information or some video showing the fabrication process. However, its location in the museum’s Grand Gallery and the glow from the tapestry itself, seemed to attract plenty of museum traffic.
I noticed at the exhibit that there were quite a number of foreign visitors speaking in a “general assembly” of tongues. However, as they looked in awe at the luminous golden cloth, they all spoke a single word in unison: “WOW!”
Ken Carbone is among America’s mostrespected graphic designers, whose work is renowned for its clarity andintelligence. He has built an international reputation creatingoutstanding programs for world-class clients, including Tiffany &Co., W.L Gore, Herman Miller, PBS, Christie’s, Nonesuch Records, the WHotel Group and The Taubman Company. His clients also includecelebrated cultural institutions such as the Museé du Louvre, TheMuseum of Modern Art, The Pierpont Morgan Library, The Chicago SymphonyOrchestra, and the High Museum of Art.