Golden spider silk at the V&A

Arachnophobes look away now! I’ve just been to see the golden orb spider silk display at the V&A – and it is stunning.

There are two items. The woven shawl took four years to complete and is woven from threads twisted from 96 individual strands of spider silk. The geometric design is based on traditional Madagascan woven textiles, known as lamba akotifahana.

Even more spectacular is the cape, which was woven and then embroidered and appliquéd.

The comparison between silk from spiders and silk from silkworms is very interesting. The fibre from spiders is cylindrical in cross section, whereas the fibre from the silk worm is triangular, so they reflect light differently. And silkworm silk contains sericin, which has to be removed to improve the  sheen and texture of finished silk. Spider silk doesn’t have to be degummed and is also stronger.

However, spiders can’t be farmed like silk worms, as they tend to eat each other, so need  to be kept in individual boxes while they are “milked” (or should that be silked?).

The numbers are staggering – more than a million spiders were used, as it takes 600-1,100 to produce 1g of silk – that works out at 300,000 spiders to produce one square metre. One spider produces around 30-50 metres in 25 minutes, after which it is set free.

The exhibition runs until 5 June 2012.

African hats at the British Museum

In the same room as the wonderful Benin plaques at the British Museum is a small display of African hats. No wonder they are easily overlooked.

They include some funky crocheted cotton hats from the Cameroon grasslands:

Also a Tunisian chechia, knitted in 2-ply merino, washed in hot soapy water until it shrinks to half the size (the photo below shows the original knitted hat above and the felted one below):

After felting, the surface of the hat is raised by carding with a tool made from a teasel:

Finally, there’s a fascinating hat made from spiders’ webs, cane, twine and ostrich feathers made by the San people of southern Africa in the early 20th century:

Talking of webs, a new V&A display has just opened that will showcase the world’s largest pieces of cloth made from spider silk. Just as long as they don’t have any of the producers lurking in the corners…