Spider silk: The next big textile trend in outerwear?

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The North Face Japan is working on a parka made from synthesized spider silk, aiming to introduce it commercially next year.

The North Face Japan is going back to nature: Its newest project is an insulated winter coat with an outer shell made of spider silk.

insect-cobweb-spider-spider-s-web

A prototype of the Moon Parka made its debut in October, one month after Goldwin, the company that owns The North Face brand in Japan, announced its partnership with the Japanese biotech company Spiber. The two have an exclusivity agreement aimed at using QMONOS, Spiber’s synthesized spider silk, to create next-generation sports apparel.

Coming soon: TNF's Moon Parka, made from spider silk, is an insulated parka fit for the Arctic. Credit: Spiber, Inc.

Coming soon: TNF's Moon Parka, made from spider silk, is an insulated parka fit for the Arctic. Credit: Spiber, Inc.

Stronger than Steel

Unlike silk worms, spiders become territorial and homicidal in crowds – a disposition that makes them difficult to farm. Instead of swapping for more docile livestock, Spiber turned its back on silk worms and spent 8 years fine-tuning a method of synthesizing silk with genetically altered bacteria. Why all the effort? Unlike worm silk, spider silk is about 3 times stronger than either nylon or Kevlar and can stretch nearly 40% of its original length without breaking. When strained, it reacts more like rubber than polymer.

QMONOS, Spiber’s synthesized spider silk, looks like typical fiber, but it's not. Credit: Spiber, Inc.

QMONOS, Spiber’s synthesized spider silk, looks like typical fiber, but it's not.Credit: Spiber, Inc.

Material strength frequently comes at the expense of elasticity. Carbon fiber, for example, is many times stronger than steel but significantly more brittle which is why carbon fiber trekking poles have been known to snap upon impacts that plastic or aluminum could easily absorb.

Likewise, nylon, a universal component of performance outerwear, is strong but not inherently stretchy. That’s where spider silk comes in – its unique balance of elasticity and strength allows it to outperform synthetics.

Spider silk is an organic material, and requires no petroleum to produce. But, like a cobweb, spider silk decomposes over time. Its biodegradability earns it two thumbs up from environmentalists but maybe not from consumers looking for a lifetime guarantee. Currently, the fibers require additional treatment to protect them.

Spiber and Goldwin’s joint press release described environmental responsibility as an impetus for the research partnership: “With the threat of the world’s fossil fuels running dry, the responsibility of shifting from non-renewable to sustainable resources rests with today’s society.” This is part of an ongoing commitment by The North Face to reduce environmental impact, though previous efforts have involved recycled plastic and cleaner dyes rather than the adoption of radically new materials.

Spider-free Spinning

QMONOS is a synthesized silk, but the first steps of assembly still occur in living organisms. To produce it, Spiber creates copies of the genes that orchestrate silk protein production in spiders and inserts those genes into bacterial cells. The bacteria feed on sugar and reproduce. After several days of fermentation Spiber harvests the proteins, turns them into a powder, and forces them through tiny nozzles until a slender fiber emerges. That fiber can then be spun into thread. The process takes about 10 days.

Spider silk has super-hero powers: It's stronger than Kevlar and stretchier than rubber, says the company. Credit: Spiber, Inc.

Spider silk has super-hero powers: It's stronger than Kevlar and stretchier than rubber, says the company. Credit: Spiber, Inc.

Spiber has isolated and tested a number of genes, and its library of synthesizable proteins currently numbers around 600. Each protein results in a different silk with different properties (i.e. weight, strength, and stretch).

Right now, the parka exists only as a prototype, though it’s expected to become commercially available in 2016. The North Face isn’t revealing exactly when that will be or how much the insulated coat will cost, but you can be sure it won’t be cheap. Right now they’re shooting for under $1000, according to Naoki Kimura with The North Face Japan. The North Face currently does not have plans to introduce the jacket in the United States.

For now, it is a think piece.

“[It] is an exciting foray into new areas of innovation for The North Face, bringing fresh ideas into the market and capturing the imagination of people around the globe,” said Joe Vernachio, The North Face’s Global VP of Product.

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