The fiber under the company’s trademark, Brewed Protein, has been used in limited edition collections by brands such as Japanese streetwear label Sacai and outdoor clothing specialist The North Face Japan.
Now expanding production and preparing for the full commercial launch of its textiles, Spiber hopes its technology will help “solve some of the major global challenges we face,” says Higashi.
That is why friends Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara, the founders of Spiber, decided to create a synthetic material that is molecularly identical to the web. The duo began experimenting as students at Keio University in Yamagata Prefecture in 2004 and founded the company in 2007.
According to Higashi, Spiber studied “thousands of different spider species” as well as other silk-producing species and compiled a database of silk varieties.
Having successfully made an alternative to spider silk, Higashi said, the team set about developing a range of fabrics from boiled protein by resequencing the proteins.
Spiber fibers are made by fermenting water, sugar and nutrients with specially modified microbes in steel tanks like those used in brewing to produce protein polymers. According to Higashi, the polymers are fed through a nozzle and spun into fiber.
However, this was not an easy journey. In 2015, Spiber partnered with The North Face Japan to release a limited edition of 50 Moon Parka jackets to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings.
But during the design process, the team discovered that spider silk shrinks when wet, and they had to modify the protein to make the fiber suitable for an outdoor jacket.
“It took four years to produce clothes that met their standards,” says Higashi. The parkas were selling for ¥150,000 (about $1,400 in 2019) and the small collection was sold out.
Higashi says that according to the company’s life cycle analysis, Spiber’s biodegradable textiles are predicted to generate only a fifth of the carbon emissions compared to animal fibers when they are put into full-scale production.
However, Spiber wants to further reduce its environmental impact. The company currently uses sugarcane and corn for the fermentation process, crops that require large amounts of land and divert food resources, says Higashi.
To solve this problem, Spiber is developing a process called “biospheric circulation” that will turn discarded clothing made from natural materials like cotton into sugars needed for fermentation.
Higashi says the scaling will help drive down the price of Brewed Protein and allow Spiber to expand beyond the high-end designer market.
“We have the means to create solutions that enable more circular fashion,” says Higashi. “Our mission is to bring these solutions to the world.”