The world’s first neckties made of spider silk demonstrate sustainable bio-manufacturing in practice.
Wearable technology generated great excitement at the beginning of the 2010s with the novelty factor of 3D printing, sensor-enabled garments, and grow-your-own-dress projects from imaginative graduate students. But lately, the fashion tech revolution has appeared to lag behind schedule.
Now, the launch of a necktie, of all things, could be an early sign of a breakthrough in the field. Bolt Threads, a biotechnology company, has produced the “first spider silk product ever available for purchase”—a simple blue design priced at a cool $314, with an initial production run of 50 items.
While most consumers might balk at the premium price tag for what appears to be just a tie, Bolt Threads produced the garments using an innovative bio-manufacturing process that promises big changes down the road.
Spiders have never been amenable to having their silk harvested, so Bolt Threads had to develop a new process. Rather than working directly with spiders, the company instead genetically modified bacteria to produce spinnable spider silk proteins.
Compared to conventional textile production, the process is more sustainable and less polluting, according to the company. Bolt Threads may soon even be able to create bacteria that make colored silk, eliminating the need for synthetic dyes and their toxic by-products.
“I look at apparel and we should be demanding more, and we’re not,” said Bolt Threads CEO Dan Widmaier at SXSW Interactive. “There’s a lot of opportunity for this to displace things that are not innovative and unsustainable.”
Bolt Threads currently has so little product stock that would-be buyers had to enter into a lottery for the chance to purchase one of the ties. But investors and big brands are already placing their bets. In 2016, Bolt Threads raised $50 million from investors in its third round of funding, and partnered with Patagonia to develop sporting goods.
Describing conventional silk production as “about as efficient as it’s going to be after 5,000 years,” Widmaier said the potential variation from bio-manufactured spider silk was much greater, leaving plenty of room for innovation later on.
Even the word “silk” isn’t entirely accurate when it comes to the potential versatility of the product. “At the end of the day, we’re making protein-based fibres that have cross-sections and textures and properties such that they feel like almost anything you want—wool, nylon, or something entirely new,” Widmaier told the New Yorker.
Excitement about harnessing biological processes for fashion has been simmering beneath the surface at SXSW for years. But Bolt Threads goes further in offering a commercially available product made from a new kind of bio-produced material. Before long, modified organisms could be harnessed to produce a whole range of products. Smart brands should watch this space.