The U.S. Army is leading the way in a silk stocking revolution.
The same organization that gave out nylons during World War II has developed a new silk fiber that's supposedly stronger than steel.While the army intends to use it for bulletproof vests, the new fiber will also help the hosiery business, which needs a shot after several years of flat sales.
The miracle fiber comes from a lowly bacteria.
Stephen Lombardi, a 28-year-old civilian molecular biologist, is credited with successfully engineering the gene for spider silk into a bacteria that produces the fiber faster and cheaper than the existing method.
For centuries the silk industry has had to rely on costly and time-consuming farming of silkworms, a cultural and commercial tradition in Orient countries such as China and Japan.
Because of production problems and the time involved, silk has not been used is hosiery since the advent of nylon in World War II.
Hosiery is big business in North Carolina, home to half of the nation's $6 billion hosiery business. At least 47,000 workers in the state are employed by hosiery companies, including two of the nation's top producers Sara Lee Corp., a Chicago company that headquarters its hosiery divisions in Winston-Salem, and Kayser-Roth, based in Greensboro.
Officials at both companies said they need to know more about the new process before they can evaluate its impact.
``It's all new to us,' said Sara Lee spokeswoman Nancy Young. ``I don't know if I want something stronger than steel around my legs. We'll see.'
Sara Lee, maker of Hanes and L'eggs brands, doesn't use silk in any of its lines. Even its Silk Reflections line gets is smooth, stretchy feel from Lycra, which Young said has better wearability that silk.
But Greensboro-based Kayser-Roth, maker of the No-Nonsense brand, is planning to introduce a high-priced silk pantyhose that could reach department stores by fall, according to company president Walt Pilcher.
Pilcher said the new pantyhose won't be made of the new genetically designed spider silk, at least not at first.
But the mass production of spider silk may someday mean a decline in the cost of commercial silk, according to Lombardi.
``Right now they're still using the old way of doing it, with a lot of man hours spent babysitting the worms,' Lombardi said. ``This process is very cheap and simple. Our intent was to mass produce large quantities of silk cheaply and there's no reason why the general public shouldn't have access to the technology.'
That technology refers to Lombardi's success in isolating the gene that produces silk in the Golden Orb weaver spider and engineering the gene into bacteria. The bacteria in turn produces a spider silk protein.
Until now, spiders have never been an efficient source of silk production. Unlike silkworms, they have not been domesticated and rarely can be kept alive long enough to produce quantities of silk. But with Lombardi's process, no spiders are needed.
Jack Shamash, president of the New York-based Shamash and Sons, the country's largest silk importers, says the idea that spider silk could replace silkworms is ``a lot of nonsense.'
``You'll have to build a whole billion-dollar industry,' said Shamash. ``I very much doubt it could displace silk on the open market.'
Lombardi countered that his method of producing spider silk involves sophisticated biotechnology, but wouldn't require new factories or weavers. Existing fiber-spinning technology could be used on the spider silk, he said.
Lombardi, who works at the Army's sprawling research laboratory in Natick, Mass., south of Boston, devised his method of replicating spider silk last spring. He presented a brief report last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention in New Orleans and will detail his discovery at an American Chemical Society meeting in April.
Lombardi said scientists have studied spider silk for years in an effort to produce it in greater quantities. Natives of New Guinea and Madagascar have used spider silk to make fishing drop lines for centuries. The covering of a hot air balloon on display at the World's Fair was made of spider silk.
Spider silk has five to 10 times the tensile strength of steel and can be stretched about 18 percent without breaking. Because of its toughness, spider silk is likely to replace Kevlar as the military's choice for bulletproof vests, Lombardi said.
Spider silk is also envisioned for parachute cording, light tents, uniforms and even some fiber optic material. And while silk bulletproof vests may not sound very macho to the average American soldier, Lombardi said they will be more lightweight and even more effective.
``Remember there are species of spider in Madagascar that have ensnared small birds,' he said. ``It's a tough fabric.'
The Associated Press contributed to this story.