In "On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures" Charles Babbage gives a very detailed account of the production of extremely light veil by caterpillars. These fabrics appear 20 times lighter than those made of ordinary silk.

Did (and does) this technology truly exist?

From Project Gutenberg:

A most extraordinary species of manufacture, which is in a slight degree connected with copying, has been contrived by an officer of engineers residing at Munich. It consists of lace, and veils, with open patterns in them, made entirely by caterpillars. The following is the mode of proceeding adopted: he makes a paste of the leaves of the plant, which is the usual food of the species of caterpillar(4*) he employs, and spreads it thinly over a stone, or other flat substance. He then, with a camel-hair pencil dipped in olive oil, draws upon the coating of paste the pattern he wishes the insects to leave open. This stone is then placed in an inclined position, and a number of the caterpillars are placed at the bottom. A peculiar species is chosen, which spins a strong web; and the animals commencing at the bottom, eat and spin their way up to the top, carefully avoiding every part touched by the oil, but devouring all the rest of the paste. The extreme lightness of these veils, combined with some strength, is truly surprising. One of them, measuring twenty-six and a half inches by seventeen inches, weighed only 1.51 grains; a degree of lightness which will appear more strongly by contrast with other fabrics. One square yard of the substance of which these veils are made weighs 4 1/3 grains, whilst one square yard of silk gauze weighs 137 grains, and one square yard of the finest patent net weighs 262 1/2 grains. The ladies' coloured muslin dresses, mentioned in the table subjoined, cost ten shillings per dress, and each weigh six ounces; the cotton from which they are made weighing nearly six and two-ninth ounces avoirdupois weight.

  • The department of textiles of the historic museum of the city of Munich was very kind, and replied to an email of mine: Unfortunately they would not have any account of such a technology having existed in Munich.
    – tsttst
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 0:30

1 Answer 1


According to History and Science of Knots

It was also in Switzerland that the caterpillar lace experiments were carried out: a design was painted on a varnished wooden board using a 'paint' of succulent leaves pounded into a paste. The board was then propped up against a wall and caterpillars placed along the base; as they climbed up the board eating the paste, they left trails of cocoon-silk which interlaced to form a sturdy mesh. This method of manufacture proved unsuccessful commercially for there were problems of quality control.

  • Thank you. While not Munich, Switzerland and their protocol appear quite close.
    – tsttst
    Commented Oct 17, 2016 at 23:03

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