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New York's American Museum of Natural History unveiled a one-of-a-kind exhibit last week: a shimmering golden tapestry made completely of spider silk.
Weavers in Madagascar spent four years making it using silk from more than a million spiders. It's 11 feet long by four feet wide. And as NPR's Christopher Joyce found out, there's nothing like it in the world.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Yes, this is the same stuff spiders use to weave their webs, and of course, how it was made is intriguing. But it was hard just to tear your eyes away from this thing as it lay in a display case in the museum hallway.
Mr. SIMON PEERS (Textile Maker): The color that you see here is the natural color of the silk.
JOYCE: It is an extraordinary, radiant gold.
Mr. PEERS: It is a radiant gold, exactly. It is an amazing color.
JOYCE: That's Simon Peers, a textile maker who lives in Madagascar and has revived traditional forms of weaving there. Weaving spider silk is not traditional, 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 he teamed up with fashion expert Nicholas Godley to hire local weavers to try the near-impossible.
They didn't think you were insane?
Mr. NICHOLAS GODLEY (Fashion Expert): Well, they did think we were insane. And 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.
JOYCE: Okay, so how do you do it? It takes a small machine, designed centuries ago, to hold the spider down.
Mr. GODLEY: The spiders are harnessed before they're silked.
Mr. GODLEY: Spiders are held down in a delicate way. You need people to do this who are very tactile so that 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, you know, about 20 minutes later, they get released back into nature.
JOYCE: Peers picks up the thread of the story.
Mr. PEERS: It's called dragline silk. So a spider can produce up to seven different types of silk. The dragline silk is what frames the web; it's the thicker silk on the outside. Also, it's extremely strong. The first panel 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.
JOYCE: A very careful person simply pulls the thread out of each spider and wraps it on a spindle. The main threads consist of 96 twisted silk lines. The brocaded patterns, stylized birds and flowers, are woven with threads of 960 spider silk lines.
Mr. PEERS: I think everyone is as in awe and as bemused and perplexed as we are ourselves. To have it here now, looking at it in the museum, it is rather - I have to pinch myself, really.
JOYCE: Peers says they never broke a single strand, yet the tapestry is as soft as cashmere.
You can tell me the truth here. Did you ever wrap yourself in it?
Mr. PEERS: No, I haven't dared do that. No, I've never wrapped myself in it, no.
JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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