Will Synthetic Spider Silk Take Over the Apparel Market? Possibly
Spider silk certainly has its benefits: It's lightweight, stretchy and durable. It's also environmentally friendly. But, the problem is that spider silk isn't always cost-efficient or easy to produce. That is, until a Bay Area company called Bolt Threads developed a synthetic spider silk material, and is testing it out on ties first.
Bolt Threads produced a trial run of 50 ties, selling them for $314 a pop. It's not limited to ties, however. If the ties go well, we could see more apparel products produced with this synthetic spider silk, like performance apparel.
Spider silk would be perfect for athletic apparel. It's naturally soft and has anti-microbial properties.
"This marks the end of a chapter of this technology where it was all research," Dan Widmaier, CEO of Bolt Threads told Fast Co. Design. "I see the ability to put out a fully baked, commercial product as marking the moment where [we] were ready and able to make cooler products."
Here's how they do it:
Bolt Threads synthesizes materials out of protein inspired by the DNA of different organisms. Spider silk is just one of the advanced materials and protein microfibers that the company is developing. To produce the material, Bolt first genetically modifies yeast and feeds it sugar and water in enormous fermentation tanks (much like the beer-brewing process). Then the yeast generates proteins based on the sequenced DNA of the natural protein Bolt is trying to replicate, like spider silk. Then the proteins are spun into fibers that become yarns. At this point, the material can enter a normal textile supply chain and become a knit or woven textile. Since knits require less raw material than wovens, Bolt decided to use this fabrication technique for its tie.
If the synthetic spider silk becomes more common, this would put pressure on apparel companies making things out of fabrics like politer, nylon and Lycra.
While the ties are ready to wear, Widmaier said that Bolt Threads plans to sell the raw material to clothing manufacturers. So, it could be the very near future that distributors will be able to sell spider silk products to their clients.
"In order for this to work, you need to be able to spin an infinite length of fiber at reproducible rates and consistent quality," Widmaier told Fast Co. Design. "You need to be able to engineer biology to make the protein at a reasonable cost, and you get a low-cost, high-quality protein source from microbial fermentation. That technology is at the bleeding edge of maturity to make that be possible. The biotech wasn't ready five to seven years ago."
While the material can compete with existing fabrics in terms of look and feel, it can't compete financially, yet. Sue Levin, a spokesperson for Bolt Threads, told Fast Co. Design that the company will "never be priced competitive with polyester," but could compete with organic cotton and silk.
Currently, Bolt Threads is increasing its production volume abilities, and is collaborating with Patagonia to explore how the material can be used in outdoor apparel.
So, while a tie is a relatively small item, it's the tip of the iceberg in terms of capabilities. As the material becomes easier to produce in larger volumes, apparel companies can start looking into producing their products (especially athleisure and athletic wear) with it.
(Editor's note: any time we can avoid using real spiders for something is fine by me. Spiders are terrifying.)
Related story: Why You Should Bet Big on Athletic Apparel