Sea Silk

It is harvested from rare clams and the thread flashes gold in the sunlight.

Sea silk is an extremely fine, rare, and valuable fabric that is made from the long silky filaments or byssus secreted by a gland in the foot of pen shells. The byssus is used by the clam to attach itself to the sea bed.

The Pinnidae are a taxonomic family of large saltwater clams sometimes known as pen shells. They are marine bivalve mollusks in the order Pteriida which are fragile and have a long and triangular shape

Silk is usually made from cocoons spun by silkworms – but there is another, much rarer, cloth known as sea silk or byssus, which comes from a clam. Chiara Vigo is thought to be the only person left who can harvest it, spin it and make it shine like gold. Chiara Vigo’s studio is known as the Museum of Byssus, on the Sardinian island of Sant’Antioc[1]. Two signs on her door read, “Haste doesn’t live here”, and “In this room, nothing is for sale.”

Some believe it was the cloth God told Moses to lay on the first altar. It was the finest fabric known to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and one of its remarkable properties is the way it shines when exposed to the sun, once it has been treated with lemon juice and spices. It is mentioned on the Rosetta stone and said to have been found in the tombs of pharaohs.

It is extraordinarily light, you cannot feel its weight of it when a small square touches your hand. The raw material comes from the glistening aquamarine waters that surround the island.

Every spring Vigo goes diving to cut the solidified saliva of a large clam, known in Latin as Pinna Nobilis. She does it early in the morning, to avoid attracting too much attention, and is accompanied by members of the Italian coastguard – this is a protected species. It takes 300 or 400 dives to gather 200g of material.

She gives the fabric to people who come to her for help. It may be a couple who have decided to marry or who have married, a woman who wants a child, or one who has recently become pregnant.

The byssus is the soul of the sea. It is sacred. [Selling] it would be like commercialising the flight of an eagle. Before it was emperors [who wore byssus], now it is young women and newlywed couples. I weave for outcasts, the poor, people in need. Weaving the sea silk is what my family has been doing for centuries. The most important thread, for my family, was the thread of their history, their tradition.

Chiara Vigo

Byssus is believed to bring good fortune and fertility. A steady stream of them, mostly Italian, arrive throughout the day. If they bring a child’s christening dress, she will embroider it. It was her grandmother who taught her the art of working and embroidering with byssus. She in turn had learned it from her own mother, and so on, back through the generations. They have never made a penny from it, she points out. She herself married a coal miner, and they live on his pension and the occasional donation.

Vigo believes that the skill was brought to Sant’Antioco by Princess Berenice, great-granddaughter of the Biblical Herod, Herod the Great, during the second half of the First Century. She now teaches people how to weave with byssus.

First, the filaments are soaked in seawater, then in fresh water. Next, the women tease them out with a spiky comb and then spin the filaments to a fine thread with a spindle. Lemon juice brightens and clarifies the thread, which is anywhere from bronze to blonde in color.

Sea Silk (Byssus) Facts

Alexander Serov’s 1863 opera Judith includes an aria
“I shall don my robe of byssus”

In Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,
the crew of the Nautilus wore clothes made of byssus
(alternately translated as “seashell tissue” or “fan-mussel fabric”).

Pinna nobilis has become threatened with extinction,
partly due to overfishing, the decline in seagrass fields,
and pollution. As it has declined so dramatically,
the once small but vibrant sea silk industry has almost disappeared,
and the art is now preserved only by a few women on the
island of Sant’Antioco near Sardinia.

  1. Sant’Antioco is the name of both an island and a municipality in southwestern Sardinia, in the Province of South Sardinia, in the Sulcis zone. With a population of 11,730, the municipality of Sant’Antioco is the island’s largest community. It is also the site of ancient Sulci, considered the second city of Sardinia in antiquity. [Back]

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Atlas Obscura

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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