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Human Uses Of Spider Silk

Aug 22, 2007
Humans have used spider silk for a number of uses for a long time. The Roman encyclopaedic Pliny tells us that spider web is excellent for sealing wounds and this is true as far as I know.

It has certainly been used by many people since then. The answer may lie in both its immunity from microbial attack and its strange combination of softness and strength.

Many people through the ages have also used spider web silk to make clothes from. When woven it is both strong and light. Although the weaving of spider silk has never become a commercial proposition it is still carried on by a few traditionalists in places such as Madagascar.

Spider silk is known to have been woven by primitive peoples to make simple bags, such as those once used to carry arrow heads by the natives of the New Hebrides and as such must be a skill that has been practised for a long time.

Spider silk was also regularly woven more technologically advanced places like India and China where it was worn by the richest people only. In 1896 a Chinese delegation to Europe presented Queen Victoria with a spider silk gown.

Spider silk never had a chance to compete with silkworm silk because spiders are much more difficult to raise in large numbers and because their silk lacks the lustre of silkworm silk.

Spider silk has found other uses however, in the early nineteenth century a family of painters in Innsbruck made a name for themselves by painting on cloth of spider silk. One of the interests of this is that the silk is so thin the image can be equally clearly from both sides.

Primitive peoples have found ways of using spider webs other than weaving them. The literature of several European explorers contain references, sometimes quite detailed, to the use by various native peoples in the Austropacific area of spider webs to make nets, both for fishing and for catching butterflies.

These nets were either made from several webs collected across the fork of a branch, or by bending and tying off a branch to make a metre wide hoop and then encouraging a spider to spin a web within the hoop.

As a slight digression I must mention that man and spiders are not the only animals to find a use for spider silk. Birds also like spider silk, it is in some ways the perfect substance for binding up the materials that make a small birds nest.

In Africa, the Americas, Asia Australia and Europe there are birds who not only enjoy spiders as a tasty meal but who also rob them of their webs. Some Hummingbirds make ropes of spider silk to suspend their nests from, and others build their nests almost entirely from spider silk.

No discussion of spiders and man, even as brief a one as this, would be complete without mention of the giant figures dug into the earth's surface 2,000 years ago by the by the Inca people of Nazca Peru. Among the many animals depicted is a spider. By far the largest spider image in the world this incredible piece of art is 50 metres or 160 feet across. Nobody really knows why it was created.

However this is not the oldest, spider image in the world, that record belongs to a splotchy image drawn by an unknown prehistoric artist on the wall of cave in Gasulla Gorge Spain. This painting is not only interesting because of its great antiquity, but also because the spider is attended by 6 smaller blotches that some people interpret as flies.

Since these ancient times, spiders have often featured in human art works and now it is not unusual to find modern art and jewellery representing spiders and their webs. You can now easily buy clothing and wall posters decorated with spider motifs.
About the Author
Nikki Fox has studied spiders for over 2 years to help beat her own fear of them.
She is sharing her advice on arachnophobia and spider prevention in the home or workplace on a special website www.spiderpanic.com
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