WARNING: spiders!

Yesterday I had the amazing experience of talking to Dr Chris Holland of The Oxford Silk Group, for the forthcoming series of The Hub. Our series – starting on Sunday 11th April – kicks off with a special focus on Science to tie in with Science Oxford. Now ever since I first read about the golden cloth woven from spider silk, I have wanted to learn more about spider silk, so I was delighted to find that for my first episode of Knit Weekly for this season of The Hub, I could talk to someone right here in Oxford about exactly this.

It may surprise you to learn that I am actually quite scared of spiders. But it is amazing how much that fear can be tempered by a. spending time with someone who is thoroughly enthusiastic about these much maligned animals b. learning about their behaviour, and c. discovering you have some things in common with spiders. I learned, for instance, that spiders pluck their web strings and listen for changes in how it sounds to let them know whether or not there is prey there for them to eat. And also, they are spinners. So we have more in common than I thought. I didn’t take any photos in the famous greenhouse where Richard Hammond recently freaked out as I was admittedly a little bit too busy making sure no spiders fell on my head and trying to cope with the disgusting flies. But I photographed this beautiful lady chilling in a test-tube, waiting to be silked. She has a big body because she is pregnant with lots of eggs. I would have photographed a male spider for you, but they are SO TINY you might not be able to see one!

The Oxford Silk Group work with Golden Orb Spiders, so called because their silk is an amazing golden colour. See the yellow line here? That is spider silk, reeled from one of these beasties.

As well as the spiders, the Oxford Silk Group look at silkworms, and Chris Holland has an enviable collection of specimens he has reared himself. There is a massive difference between the appearance of the wild Chinese oak silk moth, and the thoroughly domesticated silk moth! This is because in the wild, the silk moth needs to defend itself when it is in the cocoon stage and so must disguise itself as forest floor matter!

This is how the Chinese oak moth looks when it crawls out of its armoured cocoon:

Isn’t it lovely? In comparison, the domesticated silk moth appears to be a much paler and smaller specimen.

I was interested to learn that as with sheep, stress in silk-producing creatures affects the strength of the fibres that they produce. A similar thing to wool-break appears to occur in the fibres produced by animals undergoing any sort of stress. The emphasis at the Oxford Silk Group is very much on keeping the beasties happy so that they can produce reasonably consistent silk, but it seems that even so, the different biological needs at any moment in, say, a spider’s life, will change the way it processes its silk, and therefore the qualities or properties of that silk.

Perhaps most interestingly for all the knitters out there who read this blog, some of the research that is currently going on at the Oxford Silk Group involves knitting i-cord out of silkworm silk, that is fine enough to be inserted into the body where there has been nerve damage. Because silk is a protein, the body can absorb and assimilate it, and neural pathways can grow back along the length of the silk! So there you go; knitted i-cord made from silk could be the way that broken nerves are healed in the future.

This business concerning protein and the body’s assimilation of it is especially interesting to me as the medicine that I take for my arthritis is based on proteins. To be precise, human genes recombined and grown in the ovaries of a chinese hamster! There is a bit of my DNA that tells my body to trash my joints, and by introducing the correct instruction for those genes via a weekly injection that I perform on myself, I am able to experience life without the unwanted inflammatory activity that is otherwise utterly destructive and crippling. One of the things I have found most interesting about this gene-therapy is that while all other anti-arthritis medications are generally highly toxic, the anti-TNF drug is (in and of itself) not,* to the extent that if I wanted to consider having a child, I have been told by my specialists that I wouldn’t have to first flush my system of unwanted poisons – because there are none inherently present in the medicine that I take.

As a permanent arthritis patient I can well believe that silk – being formed from protein – could be an amazing material for creating replacement joints and cartilage, far superior to the metal or ceramic versions currently produced, being made of a material that the body inherently understands and assimilates: protein.

And I am super excited to see that knitting might have a role to play within it all!

*…although I believe that highly toxic reactions do sometimes occur with the anti-TNF drug…

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