The company’s trademark fiber, Brewed Protein, has been used in limited-edition collections with brands including Japanese streetwear brand Sacai and outdoor clothing specialists The North Face Japan.
Currently ramping up production and preparing for a full commercial launch of its textiles, Spiber hopes its technology will help “solve some of the big global challenges we’re facing,” says Higashi.
That’s why friends Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara, founders of Spiber, set out to create a synthetic material that is molecularly identical to spider silk. The duo began experimenting as students at Keio University in Yamagata Prefecture in 2004 and founded the company in 2007.
Spiber has studied “thousands of different species of spiders” as well as other silk-producing species, and has compiled a database of silk varieties, says Higashi.
Having successfully produced the spider silk alternative, the team went on to develop a variety of fermented protein tissues by altering the protein sequence, says Higashi.
Spiber’s fibers are made by fermenting water, sugar and nutrients with specially modified microbes in steel tanks, similar to those used in brewing beer, to produce protein polymers. The polymers are fed through a nozzle and made into fiber, says Higashi.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, however. In 2015, Spiber partnered with The North Face Japan to produce a limited edition of 50 “Moon Parka” jackets to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings.
But during the design process, the team found that spider silk shrinks when wet and had to modify the protein to make the fiber suitable for an outdoor jacket.
It took four years “to produce a garment that met their standards,” says Higashi. The parkas sold for ¥150,000 (worth around $1,400 in 2019) and the small collection sold out.
A revolution in recycling
Higashi says Spiber’s biodegradable textiles are expected to generate just one-fifth of the carbon emissions of animal-based fibers when in large-scale production, according to a life-cycle analysis performed by the company.
Spiber wants to further reduce its environmental impact. The company currently uses sugarcane and corn for its fermentation process — crops that use large volumes of land and divert food resources, says Higashi.
To address this, Spiber is developing a process called “biosphere circulation” that will convert discarded clothing made from natural materials like cotton into the sugars needed for fermentation.
Higashi says the scaling will help bring down the price of Brewed Protein and allow Spiber to expand beyond the high-end designer market.
“We have the means to create solutions to enable a more circular fashion”, says Higashi. “It is our mission to bring these solutions to the world.”