Of Spiders and Spinners

Spiders are frequent travelers after the Ides of March. When the eggs hatch, the tiny offspring are caught by the slightest breeze in their miniwebs, launching them into space. Many nights as a teenager were spent patrolling the pine trees, looking for orb weavers spinning webs in the branches. For a time, I raised spiders in my parents' basement to study the process more closely (this also involved raising fruit flies and putting spiders in pill bottles in the refrigerator until their food supply hatched). The act of creating an orb web seems to occur in midair, with the first thread flung out by the spider until it takes hold of some object. The thread is pulled taut and then becomes the bridge for laying down every thread that follows. The spider instinctively calculates the length and angle of placement for each line with quick precision. The rhythmic movement of her body and legs appears to reel out silk like a fishing line. The lacelike fabric forming will glisten until the liquid silk becomes a solid. Only recently have I made the connection between her activity and my own love of spinning silk fibers.

In your groups, silk is often mentioned as one of those fibers members love in its pure form or blended with other fibers to add its special qualities to the yarn. Sometimes you share a story of how a member raised "just a few" silkworms and the household suddenly was overtaken by cocoons (much like my spider venture). The entire production of silk makes a fascinating display and can be a visual history lesson to the public on the reason silk fabric was prized by royalty. At the Textile Art Festival in the Brisbane Convention Centre, a member of the Queensland Spinners Weavers and Fibre Artists Ltd (Australia) chose spindle-spinning a silk cap to demonstrate how fine a yarn could be (and was) spun before the invention of the spinning wheel. A second member spun variegated dyed silk, while a third used a tiny spindle to create an extrafine silk yarn.

Spider silk is in the news these days! The American Museum of Natural History unveiled an 11-by-4-foot tapestry made completely of silk spun by more than one million spiders. In Madagascar, the silk from golden orb spiders was extracted from twenty-four spiders at a time. The filaments were handtwisted together as they were extruded. With further cording of the thread, it was durable enough to weave an 11-by-4-foot shawl featuring traditional Malagasy motifs in a natural golden color. The spiders were returned every night to their habitat to feast long enough to produce 80 to 400 yards of silk each day. (Thanks to the Handweavers', Spinners' and Dyers' Guild of Western Australia Inc. for mentioning this in their newsletter.)

Spider silk is stronger than steel of the same diameter. Around where we live, spiderlike silk is being spun by silkworms. Our farm is near Notre Dame University where genetic research has led to altering silkworms to spin a fine, strong, elastic thread similar to spider silk. The mutant silkworms have the potential to create large quantities of artificial spider silk to use in new products, including garments, athletic clothing, and bulletproof vests. In the near future, the medical field may use the silk for surgical sutures and ligament repair. A video about the research is available on the Web (of course!) on YouTube.

Spiders, who have been spinning for countless generations, were one of the first living creatures chosen to go to the moon. Scientists learned about the absence of gravity through study of the webs spun while the spiders were weightless. Now spiders will have their genetic secrets commercially harnessed to benefit others. My appreciation and awe of them continues to grow while I emulate their industry in spinning skeins of silk. As a tribute to their influence in my life, I plan to weave a silk cocoon shrug in hopes of catching a nap one sunny afternoon.

Do you have news you would like to share with other spinners? I would love to learn of your group's activities and events, plans and projects. Please feel welcome to share them here or send your guild's online newsletter to spinnersconnection@interweave.com. I will be delighted to read and write up your achievements and discoveries. Post your questions or comments here so the entire spinning community can connect. That's what Spinner's Connection is all about!

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