Golden Spider Silk
Victoria and Albert Museum, London Until 5 June
The idea of weaving clothes out of spider silk has long been something of an eccentric fantasy.
In 1710, Francois-Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire presented knitted pairs of stockings and gloves along with a paper to the Societé Royale de Science in Montpellier, but research indicated that silk from French spiders was not commercially viable. A Spanish missionary in Paraguay in the 1760s discovered a way of putting spiders in stocks so as to unwind the thread directly from their spinnerets. And a French missionary in Madagascar began to carry out more extensive experiments in the late 19th century on the local golden orb weaver spider. The result was an extraordinary bed swathed in spider-silk cloth presented as a Madagascan contribution to the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900.
As this may suggest, art historian and textile expert Simon Peers - who runs the Peers weaving workshop in Madagascar - was embarking on quite a challenge when he decided to create the two fabulous textiles at the heart of this exhibition. Carnivorous and cannibalistic, spiders are virtually impossible to "farm", since they immediately start eating each other. And their threads are far from easy to weave once tension makes them thin and elastic.
The solution was to employ a team of about 80 people, who went out collecting spiders each day. These were then put into special "silking" contraptions, where handlers were able to extract silk from 24 spiders at a time, before releasing them the same evening. Although the spiders produce several different kinds of silk, this process collected the thread they use for anchoring their webs, which is coloured a spectacular crocus yellow. Once more than a million spiders had been "harvested" in this way, the workshop was able to create the elaborate brocaded textile and embroidered cape now on display at the V&A.
The former is based on the 19th-century woven textiles that the Merina people of the Madagascan highlands wore on special occasions or used to cover shrouds. The cape, which has never been shown in public before, aims to capture what Peers calls both "the nightmare and the poetry". Though it would disintegrate rapidly if it became damp, it could, in principle, be worn. Yet many people feel there is something distinctly disconcerting about the idea of being wrapped in spider silk. On the other hand, spiders are regarded as the creators of the cosmos in the mythology of several cultures, so Peers has embroidered the cape with a kind of spiders' paradise, where insects proudly rule over a kingdom of webs and flowers.
Given that these two richly golden textiles required about eight years' work, it may be quite a while before we're all wearing spider silk. But the results of Peers' quixotic experiment certainly possess a strange, uncanny beauty.