Spider silk has outstanding mechanical properties despite being spun at close to ambient temperatures and pressures using water as the solvent. The spider achieves this feat of benign fibre processing by judiciously controlling the folding and crystallization of the main protein constituents, and by adding auxiliary compounds, to create a composite material of defined hierarchical structure. Because the `spinning dope' (the material from which silk is spun) is liquid crystalline, spiders can draw it during extrusion into a hardened fibre using minimal forces. This process involves an unusual internal drawdown within the spider's spinneret that is not seen in industrial fibre processing, followed by a conventional external drawdown after the dope has left the spinneret. Successful copying of the spider's internal processing and precise control over protein folding, combined with knowledge of the gene sequences of its spinning dopes, could permit industrial production of silk-based fibres with unique properties under benign conditions.