From Cloth of Gold to Spider Silk: On the Strange Evolution of Fabrics

Stella von Senger wears weird textiles.

From what I’ve gathered in my short life, never in history has a human being looked at a woolly animal, fibrous plant or cocooned insect and not thought about turning that sucker into fabric. And frankly, you have to admire the gall it must have taken to look at some of this stuff — like say, gold — and think, I like it as a lump of metal, but I’d like it more as a coat.

This isn’t a purely historical phenomenon; it has informed an evolving industry. Modern technology has granted us the ability to turn basically anything into anything (listen, I’m not a scientist), and a lot of that’s involved making fabric. Modern people still want to wear crazy stuff, but instead of cocoons and gold, we’re looking for the obscure and strange, like holograms, hagfish slime, mycelium (a fungal filament) and spider silk. Textiles of the future basically have to blow our minds or GTFO — we’re very emotionally invested. Perhaps this emotional investment has something (or everything) to do with textiles’ entwinement within modern forms of self-expression and individuality.

Fabrics may have originated as solutions for covering the body, but they have become priceless signifiers of the wearer’s or creator’s individual qualities, tastes and extraordinary abilities. On the runway, to use a rather explicit example, fabrics – their colors, weights and origins – retain special, nearly talismanic significance in the fashion world. During the Fall/Winters 2018 shows, they showed up in an exceptional way. I know it’s May, but the Paris showings specifically got me thinking about what makes certain ones so covetable and captivating. Here’s what I think: The things we choose to cover ourselves with are intimately linked with how we see our place on Earth. Our pursuit of fine fabric tells a story about our enterprising, curious sensibility and how far we’re willing to go to express ourselves. Spoiler: it is extremely far, occasionally gross, and involves a flexible but significant number of spiders.

Shining silver garments dominated collections by Paco Rabanne and Off-White; gold metallic fabric featured in collections by Chanel and Rochas; holographic pieces were on display at Maison Margiela and Maryam Nassir Zadeh. Balmain had it all: silver, chrome, giant paillettes, tiny paillettes and holographic everything. The delicacy of the holographic print looked precious and priceless, like something woven by David Bowie in heaven. The pearly sheers were more precious but just as otherworldly. Across shows, these shiny fabrics were chased with quieter but still formidable ones – botanical patterns (Giambattista Valli, Valentino); richly dyed wool, silk and lace (Chloe, Carven, Rick Owens, Isabel Marant); lots of shearling and furry fuzziness (Dries Van Noten, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Loewe).

Over the course of human history, we’ve imbued fabric with special and supernatural significance. In both Greek and Norse mythology, fate is measured out by a spun thread, and in Chinese mythology, a red thread binds together people fated to fall in love. Almost every goddess in the aforementioned mythologies is said, at some point, to have woven; Athena, Frigg and Holda did so prolifically. Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses accuses her attackers through her loom when she can no longer speak, and the crane wife’s one rule (one rule!) for her husband is that he not observe her weaving. A Tang Dynasty legend tells us that heavenly weavers were so good, they created seamless robes straight from the loom.

Although mythological textiles tend to have supernatural capabilities and origins, many of them feature fabrics we have here on real-life Earth. For instance, Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak is said to be samite (a heavy silk interwoven with gold or silver) in one story; the Golden Fleece might be byssus (also known as sea silk); Rumpelstiltskin’s thread is certainly the wrapped silk used to make cloth of gold; Hercules discovered Tyrian purple dye after he had to pry the snail that makes the dye out of his dog’s mouth on a beach.

In my view, the weirdest and most luxurious of old world textiles is byssus, a.k.a. sea silk. It is secreted (ew) by a very rare and specific type of clam called a pen shell, then cured, then spun and woven into a supernaturally lightweight, iridescent gold fabric. Since 1992, the clam has been protected by the European Union, and only one woman, Chiara Vigo, still makes the fabric. Everything about the process sounds like something you’d have to do in a fairytale to pay off a talking animal or because a witch told you to. According to this account of Vigo’s process, in the spring, in the moonlight, in a white tunic, Vigo swims in the shallows off of Sant’Antioco. She trims the fiber from the clams. When she weaves, she does so according to the tradition of 24 generations of her ancestors. About 60 artifacts of antique sea silk remain, and because byssus in Latin can also mean “fine linen,” historians cannot be totally sure if it is indeed clam fibers that feature in the Rosetta Stone, the Bible and Cleopatra’s wardrobe. But because sea silk has an extraordinarily light texture and is difficult to make in any quantity, I’m pretty certain it was always prized.

Cloth of gold (also probably worn by Cleopatra) is a uniquely straightforward term; there’s really no ambiguity or poetic license in the name. It’s cloth. Of gold. It is made by hammering gold into a very fine strip and wrapping it around a silk thread and then weaving away. The end product is stiff, heavy and ludicrously expensive. It was a special favorite of the Byzantine court and Henry VIII, whose Field of the Cloth of Gold summit featured so much cloth of gold it’s stupid. Edward Hall wrote that on one day, “Henry’s armour-skirt and horse-trapper were decorated with 2,000 ounces of gold.” Which sounds extra even for Henry. For regular folks, the best way to get near some cloth of gold was, simply, to die. “Individuals of the middling and lower sort could hire funerary textiles from their parish or borrow them from a livery company or guild,” explains Maria Hayward in Rich Apparel: Clothing and the Law in Henry VIII’s England. “Many of these palls and hearse clothes … combined velvet and cloth of gold embroidery.” So hey! Chins up, fishmongers.

Tyrian purple silk also has its origins in special shellfish, and yes, it’s also a secretion. Tyrian purple is well documented in ancient law (it was the jealously-guarded color of Byzantine emperors), writing and existing artifacts. What’s unclear is if it was actually purple in the way we think of purple today. A 1922 edition of the New York Zoological Society Bulletin says that, “[W]ith a certain degree of regularity come to us the questions, ‘What shells did the Phoenicians use for the famous Tyrian dye?’ And ‘Was not true Tyrian purple more red than purple?’” (Clearly not everybody was having fun in the Roaring Twenties.) The zoological society wasn’t confident about the shade. From the vantage point of 2018, its answer is very telling about the ambiguity of purples: “The question as to whether Tyrian purple was more red than purple is a difficult one; for violet, of course, shades into red.” Contemporary sources that compare the most costly mix of the dye to “blackish clotted blood” seem to back this up. Like every other hyper-luxury textile, suffering was put into Tyrian purple production. According to an account by Pliny the Elder, it took more than ten days to boil the snails into dye, and it smelled really, really bad.

In 2017, Stella McCartney started using synthetic spider silk in a few garments. Spider silk — the real stuff, I mean — is apparently awesome. It’s very, very tough and very, very light. So why not use spider silk? The obvious answer is that it will result in your neighbor starting a spider farm in his apartment. Fortunately for everyone, this is not how it works, but that fact has been history’s greatest barrier to spider silk production. The man who presented Louis XIV with a pair of spider silk stockings kept running into an issue where a roomful of spiders would not diligently make a roomful of spider silk because they just ate each other. Typical. Spider silk in any sufficient quantity is hell to collect and involves more spiders than anyone should have to think about.

In 2012, after eight years of work by two men and, allegedly, more than a million spiders, a cape made of deep gold spider silk was finally produced and taken on tour. All this is to say: The product is great, but the production is so ludicrously impractical that the only reasonable way to do it has been to genetically engineer it. The good news is synthetic spider silk has the same tensile strength, lightness and tactile appeal (!) of regular spider silk, but minus the bad part, which is spiders. And time. Synthetic spider silk is 98 percent water and 0 percent spiders, involves fermented yeast and has appeared in the aforementioned Stella McCartney collection as well as an Adidas sneaker. In a New Yorker piece titled “In the Future, We’ll All Wear Spider Silk,” Nicola Twilley claims that someday, we’ll all be wearing spider silk. See you there?!?

Holographic color –not really a color but a three-dimensional light field — is honestly so damn confusing it’s hard to even talk about without being arrested by the science police and carted off to science prison. But there is an incredible hubris behind the desire to turn an entire spectrum of light – not even one dimension of it, but three dimensions — into clothes that I find deeply compelling. Not unlike whatever ancient rich guy decided he wanted to wear gold as a coat, in recent years, we have decided we want to wear light. Just…light. Unfortunately for us, it’s super hard to do. If you Google search “holographic vs. iridescent,” you will get lots of results about makeup (and, indeed, Pat McGrath herself did holographic lips for the Maison Margiela show) and none at all about holograms. But holographic color is not iridescent or even prismatic. There’s actually an entire YouTube channel devoted to identifying holographic colors. Holographic prints have the most in common with the rainbow security holograms (which are not true holograms) printed onto credit cards and computer products and just about every outfit the kids wore in Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. (In this respect, someone should alert the academy that the movie accurately predicted life in the 21st century.) “Holographic” in the fashion sense is not a hologram, or even technically holographic, but the implication of photoscience is enough to be aspirational. Like spider silk, we’re working on it.

While we’re on the topic of colors, it’s worth noting that pink, as concept more than color, has almost reached textile-levels of revelry. It also has a nearly scientific taxonomy: Barbie pink, millennial pink, Nantucket red, rose gold, etc.. Pink exists across a spectrum even wider than purple, and even though it is not the color of royalty, it comes with a lot of assumptions. In August of 2016, The Cut innocently wondered, “Is There Some Reason Millennial Women Love This Color?” If only they knew what was to come. The article theorized that millennial pink was “ironic pink,” but two years later millennial pink is dead serious. As for the reason, it might be nostalgic, it might be a rejection of notions about seriousness in dress, it might be a rebuke of the notion of gendered colors — it might be anything. A 2007 study identified a gender division along the red-green color axis and then goofily theorized that women prefer redder colors because, during human evolution when “men hunted, women gathered, and they had to be able to spot ripe berries and fruits.” Everybody…doing okay over in science?

Anyway, during Paris Fashion Week, pink was featured by Zuhair Murad, Mulberry and Alexander McQueen, among others. This certainly wasn’t the first time we’ve seen heavy pink on the runway; by now the trend has been going strong for about four years. Though millennial pink peaked in 2016 and trend forecasters in 2017 were sure that pink itself would give way to primary colors, it’s hung on in real life as well as on runways, becoming more and more serious, more and more acceptable, more and more mature. Every era has a color; maybe pink is ours.

Photographed by Miriam Waldner. Styled, art directed and modeled by Stella von Senger; Makeup by Aennikin; Assisted by Sophia Steube.

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