Spider Wranglers Weave One-Of-A-Kind Tapestry

Tapestry made from the silk strands of golden orb spiders

A stunning golden tapestry woven from spider silk is unveiled at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City after four years of work — and the help of more than 1 million spiders. R. Mickens/AMNH hide caption

itoggle caption R. Mickens/AMNH

This week in New York, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled something never before seen: an 11-by-4-foot tapestry made completely of spider silk.

Weavers in Madagascar took four years to make it, and the museum says there's no other like it in the world.

Golden orb spiders i i

Two Nephila madagascariensis spiders that were used to create the golden tapestry. Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley hide caption

itoggle caption Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley
Golden orb spiders

Two Nephila madagascariensis spiders that were used to create the golden tapestry.

Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley

It's now in a glass case at the museum. The color is a radiant gold — the natural color of the golden orb-weaving spider, from the Nephila genus, one that's found in several parts of the world.

Simon Peers, a textile maker who lives in Madagascar, conceived the project. Weaving spider silk is not traditional there; a French missionary dreamed it up over a century ago but failed at it. The only known spider silk tapestry was shown in Paris in 1900 but then disappeared.

Peers researched previous attempts, then teamed up with fashion expert Nicholas Godley to hire local weavers to try the near-impossible.

"They did think we were insane," Godley says. "It was actually hard to find people who were willing to collect and work with spiders. I think most people are arachnophobes. I mean, I am, and they bite."

The task of silking a spider starts with a small machine — designed centuries ago when the first attempts to silk spiders were begun — that holds the spider down.

"The spiders are harnessed ... held down in a delicate way," Godley says, "so you need people to do this who are very tactile so the spiders are not harmed. So there's a chain of about 80 people who go out every morning at four o'clock, collect spiders, we get them in by 10 o'clock. They're in boxes, they're numbered, and then as they get silked, about 20 minutes later, they get released back into nature."

A Difficult Task

Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley stand in front of the gold tapestry. i i

Simon Peers (left) and Nicholas Godley stand in front of the tapestry at the museum in New York. They say they spent a half-million dollars of their own money to make the tapestry. Chris Joyce/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Joyce/NPR
Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley stand in front of the gold tapestry.

Simon Peers (left) and Nicholas Godley stand in front of the tapestry at the museum in New York. They say they spent a half-million dollars of their own money to make the tapestry.

Chris Joyce/NPR

Peers picks up the thread of the story.

"It's called dragline silk," he says. "A spider can produce up to seven different types of silk. The dragline is what frames the web; it's the thicker silk on the outside. Also, it's extremely strong. The first panel that we wove, we were quite stunned by the fact that it sounded a bit like guitar strings, pinging like metallic guitar strings. I mean, it is a very, very unusual material."

A very careful person simply pulls the thread out of each spider and wraps it on a spindle. It's then put on a hand loom and woven.

The main threads consist of 96 twisted silk lines. The brocaded patterns in the tapestry — stylized birds and flowers — are woven with threads made up of 960 spider silk lines.

Peers says they never broke a single strand, yet the tapestry is as soft as cashmere.

Peers and Godley say they spent a half-million dollars of their own money to make the tapestry, which is on display at the museum for several months.

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