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Golden Spider Silk (V&A)

Extreme couture from the highlands of Madagascar.

With no trace of cobweb or dust, a small, dark room beyond the gallery of lacquered Buddhas at the Victoria and Albert Museum hosts "Golden Spider Silk", a new exhibition of textiles woven from the thread of a million Madagascan arachnids.

The silk from the golden orb-weaver hums in the light. More turmeric- or pollen-coloured than gold, the silk strands are individually extracted by a handler from the female spider, before she is returned safely back into the wild. Her leg span is the size of your palm and her metre-long web glitters against the matt background of the forest.

An eight-year endeavour by two designers and an army of native weavers has produced two textiles. The first, a strikingly modern cape, is embroidered in a raised stitch with spiders and ferns. The motifs are compelling, if a little sinister, and a watercolour illustration of the design invokes "poetry, myth [and] nightmare". Unwoven threads hang down the front of the cape in three thick ponytails, the raw ends gathering in misty coils.

Less apparent in the room, a wall-mounted box frame holds a number of wooden bobbins. Wound around them, the golden silk looks like copper wire on a spool, and a 200-gramme plumb weight hanging from a single thread acts as a demonstration of this natural material's extraordinary qualities: its tensile strength and elasticity could find it uses in engineering and medicine, as well as in fashion.

The second woven piece is a large, traditional Madagascan shawl. It feels more contemporary than the modern cape - when one looks at the brocaded textile at an angle, its raised pattern of intricate rhomboids takes on the aspect of a giant circuit board. Twenty-four raw tassels reach out at either end, soft like rice noodles. It may be the monochrome symmetry but this golden beauty is far from gaudy. You might say that the cape is extreme couture - it takes over four years, after all, to make a single garment.

Elsewhere, a case of documents provides background material, describing the strange history of the discovery of spider silk and the uses to which it was previously put (such as bed drapings at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, in Paris). A video shows the dextrous hands of Malagasy weavers at their looms, twisting warps from 96 spun strands of spider silk, brocading together ten threads to a weft. One couldn't help thinking of the scraps, the unneeded parts cut away to tailor the cape. Silk taken from a thousand spiders in vain!

This process - with the intensive skill and labour involved - is as compelling as the magical appearance and awesome properties of the fabric. It is an extraordinary human achievement.

Until 5 June.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.