The sea silk (Byssus)

The weaving of Byssus or sea silk has its roots in very ancient times; we do not know exactly when and where its history began, thanks to a dense network of trade between the Mediterranean basin and the East;

mentions are found in many passages of the Bible, its existence is known in ancient Egypt (but some theories argue that it is confused with the fine and refined linen byssus, soft and shiny like that of the sea), while in Greece they introduced it the Phoenicians;

obviously, given the cost of processing and the precious result, in ancient times the byssus was always associated with divinities and reserved for kings, clergy and emperors.

In Roman times, byssus is mentioned as a fiber sold by weight of gold and Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, describes in detail the fishing process for Pinna Nobilis, the mollusk from which the fiber is obtained, of which in ancient times it was made also for food use and large reddish pearls (of no commercial value) were extracted.

Byssus fishermans

The production of byssus was also flourishing in the Red Sea, while in our peninsula people fishing and working in Puglia and Sardinia;

due to the immense work that was needed for the production it was supplanted by the introduction of the silkworm (around 550 AD); by weaving this material, precious and beautiful fabrics were also obtained, but with less work; the byssus became little used and maintained only for a few very precious processes.

Ifew historical artifacts that are known to us are of extraordinary workmanship; the oldest is dated around the 4th century; it was found in Budapest (in 1912) in a female burial, but unfortunately it was destroyed during a bombing in the Second World War;

the oldest find till now is a 14th century knitted bonnet; archaeologists found it in an excavation campaign in the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris (in 1978) and it is exhibited at the Natural History Museum in Basel.

Byssus coif

Sea silk is a very particular animal fiber; it is obtained by working the filaments, 15-20cm long, which hold a giant bivalve mollusk (the Pinna Nobilis) attached to the rock; it was once widespread in the Mediterranean basin, but is now in danger of extinction and fishing is prohibited;

the fin anchors to the rocks just below the surface of the water, up to a depth of 40 meters; it has a life cycle of up to 20 years and dimensions between 60cm and one meter;

Pinna nobilis

When the fin is caught, the mollusk dies; it is thus possible to extract the tuft of filaments, which can be lightened or dyed, then carded, spun and woven.

Byssus

In Sardinia and Puglia sea-silk was woven until 190; the complexity of the processing and the inclusion in the list of endangered species meant that few weavers remained anchored to tradition; some find the material abroad, where a similar species of fin is grown for food use; shorter and more difficult to spin fibers are obtained, but similar in color and yield; others weave the last stocks made before the fishing ban.

The last, admirable, weavers of Bisso use it to make weft decorations and embroider very precious wool or linen fabrics …

and carry on this millenary art with pride and determination.

Bibliografy:

-Plinio, Historia Naturalis, Libro XIX

-The Mesters of Byssum, Silk and Linen- Sapienza Editrice-

-I fili di Arianna http://arjanas.blogspot.com/2017/08/lino-e-bisso-i-fili-di-arianna.html

La vera storia del Bisso marino-Sant’Antioco

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