A New Kind of Silk in the Works

On June 12, 2015, needle & spindle shared an excellent post exploring the question of what is a “local” yarn.  Extremely thought provoking, it paints in clear relief the impact of globalization on local fiber economies.  It also, I think, will pain fiber artists and crafters dedicated to using locally-produced products.

Immediately after I read the post, I read an article in Bloomberg Business Week (6/6-14/15), “A Bay Area Startup Spins Lab-Grown Silk” (pp. 42-43) about The efforts of a startup – Bolt Threads, based in Emeryville, California (across the bay east from San Francisco) – to create a synthetic alternative to silk.  It is “genetically modifying yeast, yeastcellsingle-cell organisms that convert simple carbohydrates to proteins through fermentation, and getting them to excrete silk-like proteins.”  Bolt’s “founders realized they could pitch their synthetic silk as an alternative to petroleum-based textiles such as polyester or cheap but non-eco-friendly staples like cotton.”

Would silk yarn produced in this method be a “natural” fiber?  No.  Granted, the goal is to replicate silk from a different natural source (in this case, yeast), but the resultant fiber doesn’t appear naturally in our environment.  Like rayon, its makings start out as something that appears in nature but is transformed by a lengthy chemical processing into something else.

MapEmeryvilleLansingIt also fails the test as a local yarn – even for people living in the San Francisco Bay Area.  The lab is currently in Emeryville, California (across the Bay from SF).  Bolt is working with the Michigan Biotechnology Institute (in Lansing, Michigan, 2,334 miles away) MapEmeryvilleGreensboroto handle large-scale fermentation, and a Greensboro, North Carolina (2,799 miles away), yarn manufacturer to spin the synthetic silk fibers into yarn and textiles.

Curiosity would definitely allow me to buy a skein, though … just to give it a try.


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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15 Responses to A New Kind of Silk in the Works

  1. I will indeed write a post if I get the opportunity to try the newest in synthetic silk. (I think that was the purpose of the original rayon, that is, to be a substitute for silk.)


  2. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for the link and I am so glad you enjoyed the post. I am just catching up on all my favourite blogs after the school holidays. The question of synthetics is very complex. At first hand rayon and viscose look like softer biodegrable alternatives to polyester but then you consider the energy use, waste produced and the ‘not quiteness’ of their biodegradablity. This innovation looks very intriguing and perhaps it will stand up to be a real alternative in the textile industry. Do let us know if you try some.


  3. Perhaps … we’ll have to wait and see if it “takes off,” as it were. 🙂


  4. It is an interesting idea. Even if it just winds up being the newest nylon, it could wind up being a worthwhile fiber!


  5. ethgran says:

    I’m sure my dad never noticed and nothing ruffled my mother’s feathers – she was a angel.


  6. All excellent questions!


  7. It depends on the vegan. Some vegans won’t use any animal product, for instance, honey. Thus those kinds of ardent vegans wouldn’t use silk either. >


  8. thetinfoilhatsociety says:

    Vegans can feel perfectly fine about using Tussa silk, it’s only harvested after the moth leaves the cocoon. No, it’s not long long threads, but it’s still beautiful, takes dye very very well, and has the sheen of silk. And it has a lovely natural honey color if you just want to use it as is, the color comes from the waste products of the caterpillar as it metamorphoses.


  9. I wonder about the breathability, and warmth/coolness of the new fiber. Also is the manufacturing process hard on the envionment and the wearability of the fabric: does it pill? does it stand up to multiple washings? How well does it take dye?


  10. Curiosity and all that … 😀 >

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I merely added to her excellent analysis! 😊



  12. Now that – raising silkworms – was not something I ever tried! I imagine your folks were a bit dismayed with the cocoons all over the house. I imagine vegan fiber artists uncomfortable using silk might really appreciate this technology. That said, those who are committed to using natural and/or locally sourced fibers might not be as appreciative,



  13. ethgran says:

    As a child I briefly raised a batch of silk worms – (brief because I left the top off the container and the caterpillars crawled away to leave cocoons all over the house) – therefore I have had a fascination with silk all my life. I too will be interested to discover if this engineered product even comes close to the mystic of real silk.


  14. Susan says:

    Very interesting indeed! am sure Rebecca will appreciate your research!


  15. I like your last line 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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