Historically, garments and other textiles were made from natural fibers, principally cotton, wool and silk. Of these, silk was the most prized for its strength, dyeability, and smooth, non-slippery texture. But its supply was very limited as it was the product of the silkworm (Bombyx mori) and mostly came from China. Chemists, starting in the nineteenth century, experimented on the production of so-called manmade fibers including rayon and, later, nylon, polyester, lycra and acrylic. But none of these fibers have the unique properties of silk, the most desirable fabric for ladies fancy garments. Its chemical structure allows silk cloth to retract incoming light at different angles, producing different colors.
Some five years ago, a group of researchers decided to reverse engineer natural silk to replicate the unique properties of this fiber with certain proteins, leading to a somewhat secretive Bay area startup called Bolt Threads. According to Bloomberg Business News (June 8-14th, 2015) the new firm raised $ 40MM from two venture capital firms. The process uses genetically modified yeast, simple carbohydrates converted to excretable proteins through fermentation. The inventors claim that by slightly modifying the genetic makeup of yeast cells and tweaking the way it spins the proteins into threads it can engineer fabrics to specified levels of durability, softness and strength.
Bolt is working with partners to do fermentation in 4000 liter tanks and Unifi, a yarn manufacturer will spin Bolt’s fibers into apparel-ready yarn and textiles. The company is aiming at high-performance apparel and expects to have products late in 2016. The product will be pricey at first, but costs will come down as production levels increase.