The delicate science of finding and working with sea silk, also known as byssus, is a such a rare thing today that there is reportedly only one woman left in the world who has the knowledge, skills, and ability to locate it and use it in their work. The 62-year-old Chiara Vigo has a very special method for collecting sea silk near the island of Sant’Antioco in Sardinia, and it is a skill that has been kept firmly in her family for 24 generations now.
According to the BBC, Vigo recites a special prayer before she embarks on each journey to collect the sea silk which comes from the Mediterranean pinna nobilis clam, also called a noble pen shell. Chiara swims only by moonlight and dives 15 meters below the surface of the sea with a small scalpel to extract the extremely thin fibers that protrude from the tips of these rare clams. These fibrous strands are created after the mollusk secretes saliva which turns into keratin as soon as the saliva hits the salt water.
Sea silk is extremely rare today due in part to overfishing, and it requires a huge amount of effort to gather, with around 100 dives needed in order to collect 30 grams worth of threads. Once enough threads are collected, the long process of cleaning, spinning, and weaving begins.
A sacred ‘Sea Oath’ maintains that byssus, or sea silk, should never be bought or sold. https://t.co/Q3VmX9z21K
— BBC Travel (@BBC_Travel) September 9, 2017
Sea silk was a highly prized commodity in the ancient world and much sought after. In the region of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, it was commonplace for women to use it to create clothes that would cloak kings, and King Solomon had his robes spun with sea silk as part of his attire. It was also reportedly used to create shimmering bracelets for Nefertiti and has been used in the design of articles of clothing for both pharaohs and popes.
The Old Testament describes sea silk in 45 different instances and it is also referred to in the Rosetta Stone. In China, it was once given the title of “mermaid silk,” perhaps because it is finer even than human hair.
It is unclear why Chiara Vigo’s ancestors first began working with sea silk, but for 1,000 years the secret of using this material has been passed down from generation to generation in her family and includes not just the collection of byssus, but also different dying formulas for the sea silk. Chiara was taught how to use this precious material from her maternal grandmother and has fond memories of being taught how to dive in the ocean when she was just three years of age.
By the time Vigo was 12 years old, she was already well-versed in weaving sea silk with a loom.
“My grandmother wove in me a tapestry that was impossible to unwind. Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to the sea, just as those who have come before me.”
While byssus is undoubtedly an extravagant, priceless material today, Chiara Vigo maintains that sea silk should never be either bought or sold, which she calls her own personal “Sea Oath.” What may be shocking to many people is that despite the fact that she has woven different materials for institutions including the Louvre and the British Museum, Vigo herself doesn’t actually have anything with sea silk in the apartment she shares with her husband. The only income that the couple derives comes from Chiara’s husband’s pension and from donations. Not one piece of her work with sea silk has ever been sold, nor would she allow it to be.
For the many who would like to purchase objects woven from sea silk that she has painstakingly collected, Vigo maintains that the only way that these can be acquired is by gift. For instance, she has given gifts she has woven to Pope Benedict XVI, but normally creates glittering silken treasures for those about to get married or for young children as part of their christening outfit.
“Byssus doesn’t belong to me, but to everyone. Selling it would be like trying to profit from the sun or the tides.”
The rarity of sea silk is such that the book The Masters of Byssus, Silk and Linen, written by Małgorzata Biniecka, describes the fate of one woman living in Taranto, Italy, the only other place besides Sant’Antioco where generations of families worked with sea silk. This individual attempted to create her own byssus enterprise, but within just one year her business failed and she reportedly died under mysterious circumstances.
Chiara Vigo is resigned to never suffer the same fate and turned down a €2.5 million offer from a Japanese businessman to buy one of her works known as The Lion of Women. This creation took her four years to make and she refused the offer by explaining that the women of the world “are not for sale.”
Collecting byssus is a painstaking activity and involves soaking what has just been collected from the sea in fresh water for 25 days, while continually changing the fresh water the sea silk is sitting in every three hours. Afterwards, each strand must be completely separated with tweezers and then mixed with different spices, lemon, and 15 separate types of algae.
This causes the sea silk to become more elastic and usable, and then it can be dyed. Vigo has a secret knowledge of the dying process and has said that she has the recipe for 124 dyes created out of seashells, fruits, and flowers.
— BBC Travel (@BBC_Travel) September 7, 2017
Since Chiara Vigo’s family secret for creating intricate designs made out of sea silk is passed down through the family, she has taught her youngest daughter her methods, although her daughter has yet to learn the complicated dying recipes involved in this process.
However, her daughter lives in Dublin and is unsure of whether she wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and says that her life is her own, despite people telling her that she would be crazy to let her mother’s art die a painful death. But Vigo is resigned to the fact that her sea silk creations may end when she goes, insisting that the sea will carry on without her.
“The secrets may die with me. But the silk of the sea will live on.”
While the ancient world and our world today may covet the rare material known as byssus, only the future will tell if Chiaro Vigo’s secret to collecting and creating unique designs using sea silk will endure.
[Featured Image by Josep M Penalver Rufas/Shutterstock]