Sea Silk...textile or myth? Almost forgotten, this precious textile and its production process is almost extinct.
I had never heard of Sea Silk until recently and became hugely intrigued by its historic value. 'Byssus' or sea silk in Greek means ‘highest quality of linen’ . In ancient times it had been reserved for the binding of Egyptian mummies and often gifted to the highest ranks of society. There is also ancient text referring to wearing togas of sea silk, cloaks or “Chlamys” for the ruling classes of the Roman Empire. In China the thread was called mermaids silk or sea wool, harvested from ‘water sheep’ and was often woven into fine brocaded cloth for the hierarchy.
Sea silk originates from a large marine mollusc shell called the ‘Pinna Nobilis’. The shell can grow up to 1 metre in height and historically is harvested for its edible flesh and also its pearls. The shell attaches itself to rocks using a tuft of strong thin strands or fibres called ‘Byssus' 6 cm in length. The fibres are made by filament threads secreted by the foot of the shells, creating these long threads which attach the shell to the rocks on the sea bed. These fibrous tufts are harvested and go through a very organic process of lemon juice bleaching and cleaning which is then spun into threads of gold .
From the 17th to 20th century in the Mediterranean region, the shell was endemic and widespread. The process was lengthy, taking several days to produce, consisting of washing, drying, cleaning, carding and brighting the fibres using lemon juice. Followed by hand spinning, knitting, weaving, embroidering or sewing. Nowadays this process has disappeared nearly to extinction, due to its difficult manufacturing process and high production costs.
Italy’s last living master of the sea silk making is Chiara Vigo. For over 1000 years the techniques of weaving sea silk have been passed down through generations. She believes that she is the last remaining person to still know how to weave the precious silk. It takes 100 dives to collect 300g of the raw sea silk after which she washes and cleans it with her hands. It then becomes 30grams of pure sea silk. From here she teases it with a carding brush to become 21m of spun threads . After this process a formula is prepared which is made up of 15 types of algae, lemon juice and cedar juice. The mixture becomes activated by the sound of the waves in her voice and then transforms the soaking fibres and renders them to appear like glistening gold.
The ‘Pinna Nobilis' shell, now a protected species, had become threatened with extinction, partly due to overfishing, the decline in seagrass fields and pollution. As the shell population declined so dramatically, the once vibrant sea silk industry almost disappeared. The art is now preserved only by a few women on the island of Sardinia. Chiarra Vigo is hugely active and committed to preserving this ancient art and keeping the techniques alive. It is now acknowledged as an important legacy and cultural heritage of the Mediterranean.
The Pinna nobilis is now a protected species since 1992 and it is forbidden to fish or to take any part of the shell. Sea silk remains a true gift from the deep and is one of the rarest and most coveted types of silk in the world.