You could call it a cape of many spiders.
The garment, made from the silk of Madagascar’s Golden Orb Weaver spider — 1.3 million of them, give or take — will soon be on display as part of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Spiders: Fear & Fascination exhibit, which opens June 16.
Model Stacey McKenzie, a coach and judge on Canada’s Next Top Model, was thrilled to be chosen by the museum to model the richly embroidered cape, only the second person ever to don it.
“I’m honoured to be only the second person to wear this garment. This is just so awesome … and a garment of this calibre, it’s an honour,” McKenzie said.
It will be the first time the garment has been on display in North America and only the second time ever, following a previous exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2012.
Article Continued Below
Fashion designer Nicholas Godley and textile designer Simon Peers collaborated to create the cape in 2011 after learning about a French Jesuit priest who experimented with “milking” silk from the spiders in the late 19th century.
They had to “reinvent” the technology to do it.
“One hundred years had passed before anyone had tried so we thought, ‘Hey, we’re in Madagascar, this is an incredible opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in a significant way … for a long time,’ ” said Godley. “We didn’t know what we were going to get, we didn’t know how many spiders we would need. There was no handout that would tell us how to do this,” beyond some archival material from the priest.
The garment is handwoven, with the embroidery taking almost a year to complete, Godley noted.
“(The material) is unusual in that it’s not like cotton or regular silk. It stretches to 140 per cent of its weight and it’s incredibly strong. It doesn’t behave like normal thread would so there was a lot of learning as you go along.
“Spider silk is such an amazing material. It has amazing biocompatibility, it has medicinal uses, it has technological uses,” he added, noting many companies around the world are vying to create “bio-similar material.”
Doug Currie, the ROM’s vice-president of natural history and curator of entomology, said the golden colour comes from keratin and other natural compounds in the silk.
Article Continued Below
The exhibit is appropriately named because people are both repulsed and interested by the eight-legged creatures.
“I think people really misunderstand spiders,” Currie said. “They’re one of the largest groups of organisms on Earth, about No. 7 in terms of orders of animals. (But) when people learn more about spiders, a lot of the fear disappears,” he said, noting very few species bite humans and even fewer have venom dangerous enough to injure or kill.
With about 48,000 known species — though the actual number may be double that — spiders play a vital role in nature, Currie said.
“They (spiders) are the world’s dominant predators and they also play a very important ecological role. They eat good and bad insects, but we’d be overrun with insects were it not for spiders.”