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17 August 2017

Spider Silk Could Be the Future of Clothing

We’re beginning to realise that clothes can be made out of some of the most unexpected things.

Here on Keep Me Warm we’ve discussed milk-based clothing and how wood chips can become clothing fibres, but now a team of researchers from the UK and Italy have found an even more extraordinary material that could have wearable application in the future – spider silk.

Yes, those freaky eight legged fiends could actually have a use outside of inciting fear in half of the population.

The research, led by Italian Professor Nicola Pugno, investigated the properties of spider silk because of the strength and toughness it displays as an organic material. This silk is light enough to float in the air, yet is also able to hold the weight of a spider and its prey without being damaged, posing many questions about its viability as a clothing material. After all, light and durable are two ideal qualities for certain items of clothing.

“We already know that there are biominerals present in the protein matrices and hard tissues of insects, which gives them high strength and hardness in their jaws, mandibles and teeth, for example,” explained Pugno. “So our study looked at whether spider silk’s properties could be ‘enhanced’ by artificially incorporating various different nanomaterials into the silk’s biological protein structures.”

It was found that through the addition of graphene, the strength of the silk was boosted by around three times and the toughness by ten. The researchers tested this by introducing three different species of spider to water infused with graphene and then analysing the results.

“To combine the nanomaterials and the silk, we sprayed a corner of the box where the spiders lived with the nanosolution. The spiders then drank the solution, and the nanomaterials and the silk combined as the spiders span their webs.”

The strongest batch by these species produced silk with a fracture strength of 5.4 gigapascals (GPa) and a toughness modulus of 1,570 joules per gram (J/g), up from the average of 1.5 GPa and 150 J/g respectively.

With the added presence of graphene proving to have an incredible impact on this silk, the potential application of it in the future is far-reaching. As well as being ideal for making clothes, it could also be used as a material for parachutes, sails and many other things. With a lot more research and testing, this could be just the first of many successful combinations between artificial materials and natural substances.

“This is the highest fibre toughness discovered to date, and a strength comparable to that of the strongest carbon fibres or limpet teeth. These are still early days, but our results are a proof of concept that paves the way to exploiting the naturally efficient spider spinning process to produce reinforced bionic silk fibres, thus improving one of the most promising strong materials.”

Whether spider silk clothing is something in our near future is obviously difficult to know right now, although it will probably be several years until we start to see some real world application of this new discovery. For now, we’ll just have to try and learn to love spiders so that the thought of wearing their webs doesn’t freak us out too much.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. His love for cold weather sports and hiking in the winter gives him the enthusiasm for writing about keeping warm.