Also known as mermaid’s gossamer, it is an ancient and extremely rare, fine cloth with a golden gloss woven from the anchoring filaments–the byssus–of bi-valve mollusks such as the pen shell, Pinna nobilis cetacea. It is valued for being both delicate and strong, changing colour when observed at different angles–much like a hologram–resisting water, acids, pigments…
Historical references to sea silk in documents from ancient Rome, Egypt, Greece, Persia and China remain somewhat mysterious and unclear, talking variously of a fine white cloth of great value, sea wool, fine linen, pinna wool, cloth from the west of the sea, and mermaid silk. The most famous sea silk textile is the Veil of Manoppello.
Sea silk production today is confined to Poland and the Mediterranean, a small lagoon at Sant’Antioco in Sardinia, harvesting from the Pinna nobilis and P. Squamosa molluscs. Overfishing, pollution and the decline in seagrass fields has almost wiped out this specialised industry elsewhere.
Who wouldn’t want something made of mermaid silk? The fibre is so fine it’s said that a pair of gloves could fit into half a walnut shell, and a pair of stockings into a snuffbox. Hand spun and woven, it is no longer sold commercially, its rarity and museum quality protected by the only woman weaver in the world, who had rather the work be enjoyed by all…in the local Byssus museum in Sant’Antioco, Sardinia.
The Museum is well-worth a visit, and is located in Via Regina Margherita, on the island of Sant’Antioco, which has been a centre of sea silk weaving and manufacture since the Phoenicians. It is no coincidence that one of the last sea silk experts should live on this island, as the byssus filament secreted by the pen shell only develops in the Mediterranean Sea, at depths of 3-5 metres. After being gathered in May, it is desalted in the lagoon of Santa Caterina and then turned into cloth.
Her name is Chiara Vigo, an expert instructed in the secrets of this fine, demanding and infinitely fascinating craft by her grandmother Leonildre, and will in turn pass them on to her daughter Maddalena, keeping in step with a thirty-generation long tradition.
In ancient times sea silk was used for precious holy garments, in 19thC Tarantino for luxury fashion accessories, and nowadays Chiara Vigo makes refined textiles for artistic enjoyment, such as the Leone di Tiro, a silken embroidery portraying an iconic lion, an ancient symbol of female power over male energies, and the triumph of celestial light over chronic darkness. It is dedicated to women’s patient and silent work.
‘ Sant’Antioco, Byssus Museum Information
Address: via regina Margherita 113, 09017 Sant’Antioco, telephone: 0781 828177; 3473302237