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The Weaving Spider of Madgascar

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Weaving on loom showing the natural golden colour of the spider silk
Weaving on loom showing the natural golden colour of the spider silk Photography by Johnnie Shand Kydd

Photographer Johnnie Shand Kydd on the The weaving spider of Madgascar.

Tales of spinning and weaving occur frequently in fable and myth. Tennyson’s ‘The lady of Shallot’ cursed to weave a magic web for eternity and Rumplelstiltskin spinning straw into gold at a terrible price in ‘The Tales of the Brothers Grimm’. In Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ Penelope confounds her suitors at her loom while the Goddess Athena, challenged by Arachne to a weaving competition sadistically transforms her presumptive competitor into a spider, thereby providing this insect with its’ scientific name ‘Arachnid’.   It seems strange that a process so repetitive and banal should have inspired writers to associate it with alchemy, deception and revenge but it was precisely the element of alchemy that first attracted me to the following tale. A friend, Simon Peers decided to follow in Rumpelstiltskin’s footsteps and literally create gold out of the stuff of nightmares. He decided to create a magnificent textile woven from the golden silk of over a million spiders.

Many years back Simon and I had worked together as art dealers in London. Neither of us displayed much proclivity for the job so it came as no surprise when he decided to throw in the towel and rather dramatically head off to Madagascar where he has remained to this day.

For over a thousand years, the Chinese protected their monopoly on the silk trade by ensuring a complete veil of secrecy shrouded the true origins of this most precious of materials. By the time of the Emperor Augustus, silk was said to be worth its weight in gold resulting in enormous speculation in the west as to the truth behind this fabrics’ production. The spider with its capacity to weave a web made of its own silk inevitably made it a likely though incorrect contender as it was in fact the mulberry eating Bombyx Mori moth that proved to be the true source. Over the years legends continued to abound relating to the harnessing of spider silk but it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century in Madagascar, that myth did in fact become reality. Monsieur Nogue, Deputy Director at L’Ecole Professionelle in Antananarivo designed a machine that enabled the simultaneous extraction of silk from twenty four living Golden Orb spiders. With laudable determination he managed to produce enough silk to weave a sumptuous set of golden hangings for a bed exhibited in Paris at the 1900 ‘Expostion International’. By all accounts, these hangings were of extraordinary beauty. One critic wrote ‘the fabric made from spider web recalls the dress of the Sleeping Beauty. They are of a wonderful éclat and their lustre sends the rays of the rainbow to amazed eyes’ The bed and its’ hangings consequently disappeared from both view and memory and would have remained so had it not been for Simon’s rediscovery of the original designs for M. Nogue’s ‘silking’ machines. With a bit of tweaking, these machines were rebuilt and Simon embarked on a project that can only be described as one of mad beauty.

The female Golden Orb spider is large, aggressive and prone to cannibalism (the male is tiny and worryingly edible). The tendency to eat one another obviously precludes the spiders being left for any period of time in each other’s company. Instead an army of collectors would arrive each day bearing boxes containing their early morning catch. Each spider would then be individually strapped into a compartment with her rear end protruding from whence the silk could then be extracted. Once milked of her silk, the spider would be returned to the wild. The weaving process is complex and probably of interest to few but four years and over a million spiders later, the textile is now complete and presently on view at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

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