Phase changes in silk materialities

Historicizing textile futures of fibers and new biomaterials

On the island of Amami-Ōshima, among Japan’s most renowned silk weaving sites, every production step has been designed as an intellectual property measure to inhibit the reproduction of woven products by outsiders. Now, an aging and shrinking population battles to promote practical interest in their craft by recording their know-how. With men operating computer-aided design and silk dyeing, and with weaving conducted largely by women, the Amami-Ōshima artisans have yet to determine how to secure its know-how to the next generation. Questions about livelihood and maintaining culture are situated in the midst of a global shift in silk technoscience as aesthetics and perceived values of silk change. These issues are also embedded within a “textile phase change”, wherein silk is valued increasingly as a source of protein, highly compatible with the human body. For instance, global researchers “reverse engineering” silk to “return” the fiber to its “original” liquid state to make new objects such as artificial corneas through processes including 3D printing. This paper juxtaposes the reluctant loosening of intellectual property measures once woven rigorously into production processes on Amami-Ōshima, with distant biomaterial innovations in and beyond Japan. This “phase change” signifies a need for STS scholarship on authorship and ownership of innovations that critiques how human-insect interactions inflect technoscientific discussions of temporality. The current renaissance of “new” uses for “old” materials gestures to an opportunity to comprehend how innovators and preservers of silk textiles, both using entomological sources cultivated for millennia by humans, anticipate their futures. – Lisa Onaga

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