The North Face’s ‘Moon Parka’ Is Spun From Faux Spider Silk
Most winter parkas are made out of nylon, twill, or maybe a waxed cotton. This one is made out of synthetic spider silk.
The Moon Parka, as it’s called, is a special edition coat from The North Face that’s currently on an exhibition tour of the company’s Japanese stores. It’s traveling the country like a pop star because of its very special, luminescent shell; the material is made from an ersatz spider silk developed by Japanese company Spiber. It’s supposed to go on sale sometime next year.
According to Spiber’s website, the company is still working to increase yield, which will be vital to bringing this and other synthetic silk products to market; the advantages of Spiber’s material over existing fabrics have yet to be made public; and The North Face still hasn’t settled on a price point for the jacket. In other words: There are plenty of kinks left to work out. Even if these tawny gold coats make their way to market in 2016, don’t expect to see synthetic spider silk everywhere just yet.
That said, the jacket isn’t the end game for Spiber; it’s more of a proof of concept. Spiber president Kazuhide Sekiyama launched the company in 2007 with a seemingly straightforward mission: To develop polymers with the near-magical properties of spider silk that can be produced sustainably, at scale. It’s not a new idea. Spider silk is renowned for its strength and resiliency; it’s tougher than Kevlar by weight but more elastic and responsive than fibers like cotton, making it a highly covetable material for manufacturers—especially those in the automobile, aeronautics, and military industries.
The thing is, farming silk from spiders isn’t as simple as harvesting wool from sheep, or milk from cows. It takes a lot of spiders a lot of time to produce not a lot of silk. What’s more, arachnids housed together in captivity have a nasty habit of eating one another. Consequently, researchers have been searching for a way to mass produce synthetic spider silk for years. Usually, this involves inserting genes from spiders into other organisms—yeast, alfalfa, and even goats have been genetically modified to produce synthetic spider silk proteins.
To date, nobody has been able to manufacture a synthetic silk on par with the real stuff. But companies like Spiber are getting closer. Sekiyama and his team have caught several hundred species of spider since Spiber was founded, to better understand the genetic sequence of spider silk proteins and the spinning conditions that give rise to their incredible properties.
Spiber, for its part, uses genetically modified bacteria to produce its synthetic silk proteins. The company’s researchers insert genetically engineered sequences of silk-protein DNA into Escheria coli. Researchers feed the bacteria sugar, which they urn into synthetic silk proteins. Those proteins are spun into silk polymers through an extrusion nozzle with microscopic holes that’s meant to mimic a spider’s silk-spinning organ. Daniel Meyer, head of business planning, says Spiber has over 650 types of polymers in its lab. It’s an entirely biological process—one that Spiber says requires no fossil fuels or petroleum.
Spiber isn’t the first to the field. Earlier this year, an Emeryville, California company called Bolt Threads announced it had managed to make synthetic spider silk at a mass scale. Meyer points out that other companies have yet to show an in-the-flesh prototype like the Moon Parka, although Bolt’s website reads: “Stay tuned. We are planning to change your clothes in 2016.”
Apparel made from synthetic spider silk is certainly a step forward, but as Randy Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University’s Synthetic Bio-manufacturing Center, points out, we still don’t know what exactly what it can offer over existing materials. “Is there a performance advantage to what they have? Because that’s the bottom line,” he says. These new materials mimic the properties of spider silk, but on biological level are still different than the real stuff. Spiber and Bolt “have designed these according to computer programs that are making proteins that are in some cases more easily spun, and in some cases designed around solvents to spin them,” Lewis says. Without seeing more data on the fibers, it’s hard to know what the value proposition is for a winter coat, which should be heavy and warm to do its job. Products that need to be strong and elastic are more likely to improve, thanks to these new materials. “It’s two or three times stronger than nylon, so you can imagine that you could make cloth that’s a third as thick,” Lewis says.
Spiber, too, is thinking bigger than silk jackets: The team says automobile parts made from its polymers are up next. Spiber is currently working with a company that supplies parts to Toyota to develop shock-absorbing materials. (Sekiyama and Meyer declined to elaborate further on the specific car parts, because of confidentiality agreements, but Meyer says it’s “used all over the place.”)
In the meantime, the Spiber team is getting the Moon Parka ready for market. Spiber and The North Face haven’t settled on a price yet, but Meyer says that, in the interest of Spiber’s ultimate goal (to “push humanity away from petroleum-based materials and a more sustainable future”), they hope to keep the cost as low as possible.
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