Spidergoats III: Secret of the Golden Orb

Earth's salvation rests in a display case on the Upper West Side. It is a cloth, somewhere between a rug and a shawl, with long, wispy tassels. A dizzying pattern weaves up and down its length, the work of many hands. It is a nearly perfect shade of gold. Dozens of pins hold the cloth down, their heads hidden snugly within the thread. The display case stands waist-high, angled like an architect's drafting table, covered in spotless glass. Yet the case with its golden cloth is a side attraction in this lobby, dominated by a massive Native American canoe that hangs from the ceiling. At first glance, the cloth doesn't look like something that might save the human race. That may sound like lofty expectations for a rug, but this particular rug happens to be one of the only pieces of fabric in the world to have been woven from spider silk. That's right, my friends. This is a spidergoat thing.

Analog Nation has chronicled the spidergoat menace a couple of times, tracing a direct line from the pursuit of spider silk to the charred end of civilization. The short version is this: A) Spider silk kicks ass. B) Spiders are impossible to farm. C) The biotech sector is working on a way to genetically combine spiders with goats, so that silk proteins can be harvested from the goats' milk. D) The spidergoats will become sentient and rise as one to cast off the yoke of humanity. E) Apocalypse. Whether we realize it or not, we are in a race to develop artificial spider silk before the spidergoats unleash their Day of Darkness, like a cross between Skynet and the Matrix, but with hooves. And fangs. Horrible, horrible fangs.

Potential uses for spider silk
• Ultra-strength surgical sutures
• Lightweight, flexible combat armor
• Unbreakable fishing tackle
• Indestructible hoodies
• Bulletproof Slankets

Given that the trenches of this invisible war have so far been in the laboratory, it was quite a surprise to learn that the first real breakthrough has been accomplished naturally. After centuries of failed attempts, someone has finally managed to spin spider silk into usable textiles the old fashioned way. No test tubes, no lasers, no sexy assistants in lab coats. Just a bunch of spiders spinning webs, and some patient people with an unreal threshold for creepage. The arachnid at the project's heart is Nephila madagascariensis, the golden orb spider. This native of Madagascar weaves a web of gold silk, capable of spanning between telephone poles, or even (gulp) across roads. The French have taken a couple of cracks at spinning golden orb silk into thread, most recently in the late 1800s at the direction of a missionary named Jacob Paul Camboué. He toiled for many years, and reportedly managed to produce some usable cloth — but that cloth is lost to antiquity, as is the name Jacob Paul Camboué. A pity, because creating spider garments would have made him the coolest French missionary ever, hands down, by a country mile. (His closest competition would be Jacques Marquette, namesake of Marquette University. With all due respect to the Golden Eagles: Yawn.)

None of this deterred Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley from embarking on a new quest to learn the secret of the golden orb. Peers, a British art historian, and Godley, an American fashion designer, teamed up five years ago with a team of silk weavers in Madagascar. Their results, the aforementioned shawl-esque rug, went on display at the American Museum of Natural History in September, at a gala event featuring ... wait a minute, Heather Graham? Really? How the hell did Heather Graham work her way into this story?

Godley, Graham, Peers. Not pictured: 40,000 spiders.

Maybe she knows one of them. Maybe she was a donor to the exhibit. Maybe she just loves the arachnarian arts and wanted to be involved. Regardless, Heather Graham was the marquee attraction at the gala event to unveil the golden orb cloth — which, in a way, makes her a spokesperson in the war against the spidergoats. Hey, if she wants to lend her name to the cause, that's great, but you have checked out her IMDB page lately? There is an almost shocking lack of blockbuster sci-fi titles on there. One has to wonder, has she saved the world even once? From anything? Meteors? Aliens? Godzillas/Cloverfields? The answer is yes, kind of: "Lost in Space." I've never seen it, but Wikipedia's exhaustive plot spoilers on the matter indicate that the space-o-nauts in question are indeed attempting to save humanity. More to the point, they do so by defeating "carnivorous and cannibalistic silicon-based spider-like lifeforms" who plan to "spread [their] spider race across the Earth." Ding! Welcome to the Spidergoat Resistance Front, Miss Graham. You were great on "Scrubs."

With so much riding on this mysterious piece of fabric, I decided to go to the museum and see it for myself. By standing in its presence, I hoped to get a feel for whether it truly represents an anti-spidergoat breakthrough. So on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I took the C train uptown, and paid the full suggested donation. Because that is how I roll, people.

Shoot it all you want, children, it's bulletproof.

First of all, it is unquestionably a magnificent work of art. The weaving was done by hand, in a tradition called lamba Akotifahana, once practiced solely for the royal classes of Madagascar. It is sturdy, yet in places sheer enough to see the black felt background beneath it. Most museum guests walked right on by, but several noticed the display and stopped to look. One fellow actually said, "I did not know spiders made silk," hitting the not the way one does when remarking about a curious fact that will soon be forgotten. I wrote in my notepad, "Webs? Anyone?" No one stayed at the exhibit for more than a minute, and I was starting to sense that I was the only one who had gone there specifically to see the spider silk. Starting, that is, until the spider couple showed up.

Potential things the spidergoat
overlords might make us do
• Gestate their young
• Fight each other for blood sport
• Build ziggurat to glorify
their Bitch-Queen goddess
• Burn puppies/kittens
• Die

The spider couple were in their 50s, she in a sensible toggle-fastened sweater, he in a more stylish leather jacket and jeans. They approached the display and immediately began reading the info panel out loud. Their enthusiasm was refreshing, but I started to suspect something was up when they both remarked that the photo of the golden orb spider wasn't to scale. "Nope, definitely not," the man said, holding up his hand for comparison. That's when it hit me. These people were fans. They were golden orb spider buffs. For several minutes they examined the cloth, as if they were on "Antiques Roadshow." She kept a lookout for museum staff while he surreptitiously took a picture of it on his Treo. He returned the favor while she did the same with her iPhone. It was starting to get awkward with the three of us standing there, but I didn't want to have to do a lap around North American Mammals in the hopes that they would be gone. Suddenly the man and I made eye contact, and I was afraid that they were going to talk to me, that they would ask me about my notepad, about whether I, too, was a fan. Soon they would be inviting me to spider meetings, sending me spider newsletters. I would be a spider person. Thankfully the moment passed, and the spider couple moved on, probably creeped out by the unshaven guy with the notepad. As they headed for the Hall of Biodiversity, I realized that I should not have feared making their acquaintance. When the shit hits the fan, they will definitely be charter members of the Spidergoat Resistance Front.

Having seen the golden orb silk up close, the question now looms: Are we still screwed or what? Peers and Godley have made great strides in the silk collection process, which uses little contraptions to hold female spiders in place while silk is extracted. The spiders are then set free, and more are harvested from outside. But all told, it took eighty people, four years, and over a million spiders to produce fifty square feet of woven silk cloth. I'll just pause for a moment and let the phrase "a million spiders" wash over you. Though the team plans to head back to Madagascar for more silk, they admit the limitations of the process, which right now can't support mass production on a commercial scale. Artificial reproduction remains the most viable option, and that puts us back to square one. So yes, it appears that we are technically still screwed. The spidergoat threat remains.

"If we were doing all of this to make money," Godley said recently, "I could think of much, much easier ways to do it." Oh really? We're all ears, big guy. We are all goddamn ears.

(Post-script 11/28: The original photo caption of Heather Graham claimed that the cloth was not spider silk. That turned out to be an error — it is in fact golden orb silk, made from the same process as the cloth on display at the AMNH. And who called this to my attention? That would be Nicholas Godley, who happened upon the article and very graciously dropped me a line. The Internet is a lot smaller than it looks.)