Monday, September 28, 2015

Byssus-Silk from the Sea

Silk is usually made from the cocoons spun by silkworms - but did you know that there is another, much rarer, cloth known as sea silk or byssus, which comes from a clam? A lady called Chiara Vigo is thought to be the only person left who can harvest it, spin it and make it shine like gold. Chiara lives on the Sardinian island of Sant’Antioco in the Mediterranean. A sign on her door says that nothing in her home is for sale.

Byssus, which is mentioned on the Rosetta stone and said to have been found in the tombs of pharaohs and some believe this 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.

The raw material used to make the silk 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. Chiara dives in the early morning so she does not attract too much attention and she has company, as the Italian Coast Guard accompany her. The clam is a protected species. It takes 300-400 dives to gather 200 grammes of the material needed to make the silk!

So, if nothing is for sale, what does the lady do with the silk and the fabric she weaves from it? She gives it to those in need who call on her- couples who have recently married; women who want children as Byssus is believed to bring good fortune and fertility. Most of her visitors are Italian. If she is given a christening gown, she will use the silk to embroider on to it.

Years ago a factory was set up to weave the silk and it ran out of business in three months. It seems you cannot profit from the making of this silk on a large scale and something bad has always happened to those who have tried in the past.

Harvesting and weaving the silk has been a family tradition and Chiara was taught by her grandmother, who in turn was taught by her mother and so on for generations. There are a few other women in Apulia (the heel of Italy) who can weave the silk, but none can make it shine or dye it with the traditional colours as Chiara can. And Chiara is the only person who harvests byssus- the silk of the sea.

To read more about this incredible material please visit the BBC Magazine website

Photo from the BBC Magazine website.

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