The Last of the Sea Silk Spinners?

by Owen James Burke


Above: Chiara Vigo with her Sea silk, or bissus, the cloth of pharaohs, kings and queens. Photo: Andrea Pasquali.

Most silk is made from cocoon husks, but for some pharaohs, kings and queens of yore, worm spit simply wouldn’t do. For them, there was another, rarer silk to be coveted, and it came from clams.

Chiara Vigo harvests byssal threads (known collectively as byssus), the hair-like fibers that allow clams and other bivalves to attach to hard surfaces like rocks. Spinning and dying these coarse, drab strands by hand, she may be among the last of her craft, but not if she has anything to say about it.


Photo: Andrea Pasquali.

There are others who can still spin byssus on Sardinia, but word is that Vigo, who still uses traditional dyes (see below), is the only one who can make it glow.


Photo: Andrea Pasquali.

The famiglia Vigo have been weaving sea silk for centuries, but the craft dates at least as far back as the first century A.D. in Italy, and has even been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs.

Want to get your hands on the silk of the gods? You’ll have to venture to Sardinia learn the art yourself. Nothing is for sale in Vigo’s workshop; it says so on the front door.

“You have to be respectful to the place you live in,” Vigo explains. “You are just passing by, these places are here to stay. And the sea has its own soul and you have to ask for permission to get a piece of it.”

Though she says she’ll have very little to leave her daughter, who is currently studying in northern Italy, Vigo won’t leave her earthly wares behind without having passed her magic onto the fruit of her loins, “so humankind can benefit from it.”

Read more at the BBC. –OJB

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