- Bolt Threads is a biotech company based in Emeryville, California, that produces sustainable materials to supply the apparel industry.
- Among these materials are a synthetic spider silk called Microsilk, developed without the help of spiders, and a newly-announced synthetic leather material called Mylo derived from the root structure of mushrooms.
- The company’s mission and materials have garnered attention from the fashion industry and landed it partnerships with brands such as Patagonia, Best Made and Stella McCartney.
The production of Bolt Threads’ synthetic spider silk material has nothing to do with actual spiders.
The venture-backed biotech startup launched in 2009 and specialises in the vegan material, dubbed Microsilk, which has landed the Emeryville, California, company on the map in recent years.
CEO Dan Widmaier and a team of fellow scientists studied how spiders make silk to try and replicate that process using DNA samples similar to that of the arachnids. The silk fibres that spiders make are durable, soft, and can withstand a high degree of tension without breaking, similar to steel.
To Widmaier and his team, it was the perfect source of inspiration for a sustainable material derived from “four billion years of life on this planet,” a focal point in the company’s mission statement. With the textile industry being the second-largest polluter on the planet next to oil, there’s always room for innovation of new materials.
Since Microsilk’s debut, Bolt Threads has received $US213 million in funding and has catapulted into a comfortable limelight in the apparel and tech industries. Business Insider visited the company’s Emeryville location to catch up with Widmaier about Bolt Threads’ latest developments, including a partnership with English fashion designer Stella McCartney and a new synthetic leather material produced from the roots of mushrooms.
In a 2016 interview with Business Insider, Widmaier said he wasn’t much of a fashion guy. But as his company’s sustainable materials have increasingly been embraced by the fashion industry, that’s shifted a bit. “I’m not <em>not</em> a fashion guy, we’ll put me in the middle,” he said.
Source: Business Insider
Microsilk was responsible for putting Bolt Threads on the apparel industry’s radar. Scientists have been trying to nail down the production of a synthetic spider silk for 30 years, but Widmaier and his team were the ones to accomplish it, though they knew the arachnids’ cannibalistic nature would get in the way if they turned to them for help. “Spiders in a cage would eat each other, so that’s a problem.”
They keep this guy hanging around instead.
In lieu of enlisting the help of spiders, the company takes DNA samples that mimic spider silk proteins and transforms the DNA into yeast, which the company controls and can grow at a rapid rate. Each spot below is a single yeast cell that feasts on nutrients and doubles every four hours.
This is the “magic of using biology” to create a material, said Widmaier. The company can make metric tons of yeast that will result in the end product.
The yeast grows and churns out silk proteins during fermentation, after which point the product turns into a powder. It’s pure synthetic spider silk protein now, but the process isn’t over yet. It’s only a polymer and the equivalent of a polyester pellet before being sent off to become a fibre.
The powder is sent down the hall to the fibre lab where it is dissolved into a liquid consistency similar to that of molasses. It’s extruded through tiny holes in this doodad…
…into long strands of silk.
A spinline is then used to spin the product into spools. The fibres can then be woven into fabrics and used for production.
Widmaier said there was a time in the company’s history when a small piece of silk fibre was finite and precious. The team would handle it with care and use it for pitches. Now, team members are tracking so much of it into the hallway that sticky mats had to be placed in the lab doorway’s threshold.
Last March, the material was ready for consumers. Bolt Threads released about 50 limited-edition $US314 neckties as its first consumer product. Widmaier said feedback was positive — and it was only the beginning of the unique products that the company plans to churn out.
The product and its material didn’t go unnoticed. Last year, Bolt Threads was approached by New York’s Museum of Modern Art to develop a modern-day version of the 1960s shift dress manufactured from the synthetic spider silk.
Bolt Threads took the request to English fashion designer Stella McCartney, whom the company has always had in mind to partner with. She wholeheartedly agreed.
The partnership between Bolt Threads and Stella McCartney was a perfect match. McCartney is a longtime vegetarian and has become a force in the fashion industry in her own right with her cruelty-free philosophy. She’s never used leather or fur in her collections since her line launched in 2001. Instead, she gravitates toward materials such as synthetic viscose and recycled nylon.
“It's just mind blowing for someone in my industry to work with a material that is grown in a laboratory. It's incredible."
— Stella McCartney (@StellaMcCartney) October 11, 2017
The dress was showcased in the museum’s “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” exhibit from October 1, 2017, to January 28, 2018.
What became of the collaboration was a more long-term partnership between Bolt Threads and the fashion house. The same month of the MoMA exhibit opening, two of McCartney’s designs composed of 100% Microsilk debuted backstage at the designer’s 2017 Paris Fashion Week show.
The brown-knitted blouse and trousers didn’t make an appearance down the runway, but they did make their way into the “Fashioned From Nature” exhibit in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
The exhibit is the first of its kind in the UK and explores the relationship between fashion materials and where they’re sourced from. Th exhibit also features flora and fauna themed pieces from 1600 to present day. It opened on April 21 and will run until Jan. 27 of next year.
Also on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum is a twist on McCartney’s iconic Falaballa bag, characterised by its signature metal link detailing. As part of her partnership with Bolt Threads, she fashioned one specially for the exhibit out of Bolt’s new Mylo synthetic leather material, which is produced from mycelium, or the root structure of mushrooms.
Bolt Threads announced the new Mylo material on April 16. Grown in New York by biomaterials company Ecovative, Widmaier said the process is not dissimilar to running a mushroom farm. Mycelium cells are grown in stalks of corn, feasting on nutrients before self-assembling into a dense block of material that can then be sliced to a desired width.
Mylo can be grown in 10 days, a much shorter time period than the years-long process animal leather requires.
And unlike animal leather, Mylo isn’t dyed using smelly chemicals. Instead, English Breakfast Tea is used to give the material varying degrees of colour. The dyeing process is pretty straightforward: slice open a handful of tea bags, make a brew, throw the material in and steep to your desired tint.
As far as smell goes, Widmaier said the material “smells like a funky mushroom when it comes right out of the incubator,” but once it’s treated it takes on a neutral scent.
Bolt Threads has a handbag crafted with the Mylo material in the works as well. The bag will open for preorder in June and will sell under the Bolt Threads brand.
Going forward, Widmaier said he was unable to disclose particular big things that are slated for 2018, but he did say there is much in the works for Bolt Threads and its brands and partners, which include outdoor brands Patagonia and Best Made. Both sustainable materials, the Microsilk and Mylo, will also play roles in the mass market sometime this year.
Already the company has become a player in the game-changing field of sustainable fashion. Widmaier said luxury brands are slowly but surely taking notice of the movement. “That doesn’t mean everyone’s aspiring for perfect yet, but it’s definitely rising in the marketplace,” he said.
— Bolt Threads (@boltthreads) February 22, 2018
One luxury brand that has never been lagging is McCartney’s. Her role in sustainable fashion was why Bolt Threads was drawn to a partnership with her in the first place. Widmaier said she’s been committed to sustainable products “before it was even cool, back when it was laughable.” He said he hopes in hindsight, years down the line, that companies like McCartney’s and Bolt Threads will be seen as making sustainability more mainstream in the fashion industry.
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