Bolt Threads’ engineered silk offers golden opportunity to designers
By Sophia Markoulakis
October 19, 2017
The silkworm has nothing on the spider when it comes to durability and variety, but no one had been able to figure out how to get those arachnids to spin on command until three scientists with Ph.D.s combined their k
nowledge and experience and formed Bolt Threads in 2009.
Since then, they’ve secured $90 million in funding for their bioengineered spider silk company, garnering the attention and adoration of both performance and high-fashion apparel lines. In July, sustainably focused designer Stella McCartney and Bolt Threads announced the first in a series of collaborations. The first evidence of this partnership is a one-off dress created for the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” on display through Jan. 28, 2018.
“We’d been looking at innovation and technology and exploring these areas of the industry outside of fashion,” McCartney said via email. “It’s something that I’m incredibly interested in, and I think the fashion industry is desperately in need of newness and modernity. Working with companies like Bolt is something that really drives and inspires me. Once you take that technology and you marry it with luxury fashion and design and creativity, there’s no end to what magical madness you can create.”
The most noticeable thing about the shift dress, on which both teams collaborated, is the fiber’s vibrant gold color. Traditional fiber dyeing is considered wasteful, and while Bolt Threads was exploring more sustainable solutions, they discovered that its bioengineered spider silk, named Microsilk, was holding onto colors better. “It was a happy discovery that we got brighter colors with less dye. Everyone in fashion is excited that we’re able to make these deep, rich hues and hit Pantone colors more accurately,” said CEO and co-founder Dan Widmaier.
The dress’ fabric, on a molecular level, looks like silk but it is knit. McCartney and her team needed the design to stay true to their aesthetic, adhere to the exhibit’s brief, and respect the history of the dress design. “When it came to designing the dress, we wanted to stay true to who our woman is, creating an element of natural sexiness and confidence but also bring that modern edge. Cutwork is important; drapery is important; allowing silk knitted thread to not just be a sweater dress but to really push the design was very important to us,” McCartney said.
There’s no spider farm at the company’s Emeryville facility, but there are lots of fermentation tanks that produce programmable proteins that are spun into fibers. Unlike the silkworm that produces just one type of silk from one silk gland, a spider has several silk glands, producing different textures and strengths of silk for different functions, such as protecting eggs or catching prey. At the cellular level, Bolt Threads is doing the same thing — replicating proteins and altering sequences that result in various tensile strengths and textures and then weaving them together to form different textiles for different applications. What they’ve built in their two-block space is the ability to go end to end — from a design concept to the custom fiber and
weave to a finished product.
Their recent acquisition of New York’s Best Made Company, a menswear and outdoor lifestyle brand, will allow Bolt Threads to lead the narrative. “We’re now going to be able to tell our story to people that appreciate an immaculately crafted item, built to support them in their adventurous life,” Widmaier said. It will also provide an established retail channel to market and sell future Bolt Threads goods.
Last year’s partnership with Patagonia has yet to result in a product, but Widmaier promises that there’s a lot happening on that front. “The Stella, Best Made and Patagonia consumer is very different, but we’ve got the technology to build a fiber for each, showing the possibility of innovation with materials,” he said. “We decided very early on that we could do the most good in the world by entering the market through goods you wear on your body.”
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