Spider Silk   •   Introduction   •   Lamba   •   Taffeta Shawl   •   Satin Shawl   •   Cape   •   Press

“It must surely be counted as one of the rarest and most glamorous of fabrics.  Thank goodness the world still holds marvels.”
– Sir David Attenborough

“I was one of those lucky enough to see the spiders at work, disgorging their unbelievably beautiful golden thread from their unbelievably frightening bodies […] I think that this is one of the most extraordinary projects in the recent history of textiles.”
– Stephen Fry


The cape and 3 textiles presented here represent the culmination of centuries of tireless human endeavour and ambition to harvest one of the most beautiful but elusive materials on our planet – spider silk. They were produced by Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley over the course of two decades from the silk of golden orb-weaver spiders – Nephila Madagascariensis – native to Madagascar and famous for the colour of their webs, which shimmer with gold.

We are delighted to be able to include the three textiles – the lamba and both shawls – in our exhibition.

Spider Silk has for centuries been coveted for its promise of riches, particularly by those seeking to compete with the silk arriving from China which started to flood the wealthy wardrobes and bedchambers of Europe. Its extraordinary history can be told through a handful of fascinating and ambitious players determined to push human enterprise into corners of creativity otherwise overlooked, though most soon found their dreams tangled up in a quandary of complication and prohibitive cost.

That is until very recently. Nicholas Godley and Simon Peers’ dream was never one of riches, however, but of the sheer wonder of it all; of creating magic, and doing so by turning something otherwise entirely ethereal into a reality.

Spinning golden cloth from little more than thin air sounds like the stuff of fairy-tales, however these textiles were not carried down a giant beanstalk or spun from straw, they are the result of an effort as heroic as it is quixotic.

It took fifteen years of research, drawing what knowledge they could from the efforts which preceded them, designing and re-designing equipment for silk extraction in a tireless process of trial and error, and with little more for guidance than images in centuries-old notebooks. A further eight years for production, during which they employed and trained a large team, including eighty men and women to scour the highlands of Madagascar for five years collecting spiders every morning for ‘silking’ before returning them, unharmed, to the wild that same evening.

Nephila Madagascariensis. Auguste Vinson, Aranéides des iles de la Réunion, Maurice et Madagascar, Paris 1863, plate VII. Simon Peers Collection

Warping through the comb

Estimates for the numbers of spiders necessary to produce silk are astonishing: a single ounce (28 grams) of golden spider silk requires 23,000 spiders. To produce the brocaded textile alone required drawing the silk from the spinnerets of over 1 million spiders.

This was managed by harnessing groups of twenty-four spiders at a time, each spider placed in an individual compartment with equipment custom designed and built to enable the careful threading of silk from their spinnerets onto cones. Systems were then devised and adapted to accommodate the very special properties of this silk, to allow for it to be thrown, twisted and transferred onto bobbins. Finally it was placed onto handlooms for weaving, and then into the hands of weavers who had mastered the techniques necessary to manage the special tensile properties of the silk. All of which was completed by hand, without a single mechanical process, and a carbon footprint of net zero.

It is little surprise that Sir Richard Burton (British explorer, 1821–1890) chose to describe the attempts that he witnessed in 1883 of this wizardry as like ‘gathering moonbeams.’ Little surprise too that the extraordinary glow of these textiles hides beneath it a history littered with abandonment and broken dreams, a distinguished list of those who were not able to accomplish what has finally been achieved by Peers and Godley.

Francois-Xavier Bon (1678-1761) was the first to experiment with spider silk, believing he had no predecessor in this endeavour because of widespread prejudice against ‘so common and despicable insect as the humble spider.’ Given the huge demand for the silkworm, however, he believed this was an oversight which he sought to correct. He did so by gathering the cocoons in which the eggs are protected; then cleaning, washing and disentangling them before successfully spinning them into a pair of stockings and gloves. In 1710 he sent the findings from his experiments to the Académie Royale in Paris: ‘you will be surprised to hear,’ he wrote, ‘that spiders make a silk as beautiful, strong and glossy, as common silk.’ However, the Académie disagreed, directing criticism at the lack of lustre in comparison to what they had become accustomed to from silk, no doubt a result of treating the cocoons before they were spun.

François-Xavier Bon de Saint-Hilaire (1678-1761)


René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683-1757)

René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683–1757) was charged by the Académie with assessing Bon’s work. His principle interest lay in whether it might have a future as a profitable industry, the key being to establish whether it might be produced for less expense than that of the silkworm. However he calculated that 663,552 spiders would be required to produce a single pound (453g) of silk and swiftly reported the disheartening news back to the Académie. Apart from the challenges of finding these numbers, there was also the question of how they would be fed – ‘all the flies in the kingdom,’ he wrote, ‘would not be sufficient to adequately nourish the spiders, and that, to make an inconsiderable quantity of silk.’ He concluded that ‘it appears that this silk would occasion such expenses as would not answer its value; since it would be twenty-four times as dear as that of silkworms.’

Bon’s disappointment was tempered by the wider acclaim his dissertation was enjoying, one result of which was an urgent request for a pair of spider-silk gloves from Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel (1691–1750), Empress of Germany and Austria, wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and grandmother of Marie Antoinette. This he fulfilled in less than 15 days, in return for which he received a gold medal as reward. His dissertation even found an audience with the Chinese Emperor Kangxi (1662–1722) who was so impressed at Bon’s efforts, apparently for so little reward, that he gave it to his three sons to study. Closer to home it also caught the eye of Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) who referenced his achievements in Gulliver’s Travels during the protagonist’s visit to Laputa; a world where fantastic schemes are thought up in the pursuit of science, such as trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, or silk from spiders:

“I went into another room, where the walls and ceiling were all hung round with cobwebs, except for a narrow passage for the artist to go in and out. At my entrance, he called aloud to me ‘not to disturb his webs’. He lamented ‘the fatal mistake the world has been so long in, of using silkworms, while we had such plenty of domestic insects, who infinitely excelled the former, because they understood how to weave as well as spin.”

Our story then travels from Laputa to South America where a Spanish priest named Raimondo Maria de Termeyer had been sent to join a Jesuit mission in 1762. After discovering the work of Bon and Réaumur he was convinced there was a future for spider silk and picked up on one of Réaumur’s suggestions for its development – larger spiders and therefore larger cocoons, of which South America provided a plentiful supply. Termeyer’s experiments resulted in a pair of stockings made for King Charles III of Spain (1716–1788) and requests for similar work from Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (1729–1796), and the Archduchess Maria Elisabeth of Austria (1743–1808).

In the early 19th century Termeyer made a breakthrough whilst trying to address the criticism Bon received that his silk lacked lustre, by inventing a contraption to extract silk directly from the spider (fig.2). He was pleased with the result, believing it to even surpass in beauty that of the silkworm: ‘the comparison shows evidently how much more brilliant and beautiful….so bright that it appears more like a polished metal or mirror than silk.’

Termeyer was never given the recognition he deserved. Much of his success passed to his student Carlo Sommaschi who used his methods to produce a shawl for the Empress Josephine (1763–1814), first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, later exhibited at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan and for which he received full credit. At this time Sommaschi was also reputedly working on a pair of stockings for Napoleon himself.

Interest in spider silk gathered pace throughout the 19th century, with attempts to produce it referenced from as far afield as Paraguay, Brazil, Senegal, China and America.

Avicularia avicularia and its silk egg sac, Raimondo de Termeyer, 1807

The Alpaida latro spider held in place for silk extraction, Raimondo Maria de Termeyer, Opuscoli Scientifici d’Entomologia di fiscia e d’Agricoltura dell’Abate, Milan 1807, vol.1, plate VI.  Simon Peers collection.

Father Paul Camboué (1849-1929)

However it is Madagascar which took centre stage next in the story of spider silk, where in 1880 a French Jesuit called Father Paul Camboué became fascinated by the beauty and strength of the native Nephila madagascariensis’s golden web and began exploring possibilities for harnessing it.

Using Termeyer’s methods for extraction, his efforts were soon noticed by Msr. Nogué of the French-run École Professionelle and together they put in place a system for collecting 10,000 spiders every day, from which they were eventually able to produce 175,000 metres of 12-strand thread. They did this with the Exposition Universelle in mind, which was being planned for 1900 in Paris to showcase the most unusual – and potentially profitable – exhibits from the French colonies. Madagascar chose to represent herself with a bed designed and made by local craftsmen, adorned by golden spider silk (fig.3).

It received excited reviews:

The cloth of spider silk recalls the robes of Sleeping Beauty.  It has a wonderful brilliance and its iridescence sends the rays of the rainbow to astonished eyes.  The silk of the spider is a superb golden yellow with reflections that are varied and dazzling.
Les Annales politiques et littéraires, no. 886, 17 June 1900

Few people have noticed at the Madagascar panorama, a dais, or rather a ciel de lit, of a lightness and paradoxical subtlety, that one might believe was woven from the fils de la vierge [gossamer threads blown in the wind].  This piece of nebulous cloth, almost unreal, has however been one of the most extraordinary curiosities, the most unexpected?  It was silk, but a silk both original and strange, the silk of the spider.
Le Matin, 14 December 1900

Soon after the Exposition Universelle closed, however, the bed was lost to history and its golden hangings dismissed as a fascinating but impossible extravagance. Those efforts of the 1890s were the last until over a century later, when Nicholas Godley and Simon Peers picked up the golden thread.

Fig.3 Bed canopy made from the silk of the Nephila Madagascariensis, exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, Paris 1900. Simon Peers Collection

For Peers, a highly reputed English textile designer and creator who has lived in and loved Madagascar for over 30 years, and whose traditional Malagasy textiles can be found amongst the world’s great houses and museums, some of the enticement was towards a fibre whose rarity and beauty could find no equal. Even in the long and illustrious history of fashion houses, whose obsession for luxury has taken them to reap what they can from every corner of the world, they have not come close to producing something so exquisite, so delicate or so refined.

Similarly, Nicholas Godley has held a fascination with Madagascar ever since his arrival to the island in 1993 as a development economist, exploring ways for raising living standards in one of the world’s poorest countries. As an entrepreneur he recognised the possibilities for an unexplored natural resource with extraordinary properties of strength and elasticity whose potential to science remains full of promise. Attempts to replicate these properties into synthetic materials is currently attracting enormous funding within the most innovative science laboratories across the world.

Together they have spun their colossal efforts into the definitive chapter of an extraordinary story, and by doing so created something truly exquisite, produced by capturing what would otherwise have been carried away long ago by the trade winds of the Indian ocean. These textiles are sure to travel the world as bright beacons for all that is magic and mystical in the natural world, and for those who dare to dream the impossible.