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    The last surviving sea silk seamstress

    The last surviving sea silk seamstress

    Byssus or Sea Silk

    One of the most coveted materials in the world

    Under the cover of darkness and watched over by members of the Italian Coast Guard, 62-year-old Chiara Vigo dives headfirst into the crystalline sea off Vigo descends up to below the surface using the moonlight to reach a series of secluded underwater coves and grassy lagoons that have kept secret for the past 24 generations by the women in her family. She uses a tiny scalpel to carefully trim the thin fibres growing from the tips of a highly endangered Mediterranean clam called the noble pen shell, or pinna nobilis. Harvesting 30g of usable strands takes about 100 dives, which form when the mollusc’s secreted saliva comes in contact with salt water and solidifies into keratin. Then cleaning, spinning and weaving the delicate threads is done. 

    Sea silk comes from thin fibres growing from the tips of a highly endangered Mediterranean clam

    Today, Vigo is believed to be the last person on Earth who still knows how to harvest, dye and embroider sea silk into elaborate patterns that glisten like gold in the sunlight. Women in Mesopotamia used the exceptionally light fabric to embroider clothes for their kings some 5,000 years ago. It was harvested to make robes for King Solomon, bracelets for Nefertiti, and holy vestments for priests, popes and pharaohs. No-one is precisely sure how or why the women in Vigo’s family started weaving byssus, but for more than 1,000 years, the intricate techniques, patterns and dying formulas of sea silk have been passed down through this astonishing thread of women – each of whom has guarded the secrets tightly before teaching them to their daughters, nieces or granddaughters.

    Chiara Vigo is thought to be the last woman on Earth who can harvest, dye, and spin sea silk

    Vigo learned the ancient craft from her maternal grandmother, who taught traditional wool weaving techniques on manual looms to the women of Sant’Antioco for 60 years. By age 12, she sat atop a pillow, weaving at the loom. Vigo is known as su maistu (‘the master’ , in Sardo). There can only be one maistu at a time and you must devote your life to learning the techniques from the existing master. Like the 23 women before her, Vigo has never made a penny from her work. She is bound by a sacred ‘Sea Oath’ that maintains that byssus should never be bought or sold. In fact, despite weaving works for display in the Louvre, the British Museum and the Vatican, Vigo doesn’t have a single piece of byssus in her home. Vigo explained that the only way to receive byssus is as a gift. According to Małgorzata Biniecka, author of The Masters of Byssus, Silk and Linen, until the 1930s the only other place besides Sant’Antioco where the tradition of sea silk harvesting and embroidering continued was the city of Taranto, Italy.

    The loom Chiara Vigo weaves on has been in her family for more than 200 years

    After harvesting raw byssus from the depths of the sea, she desalts the fibres by submerging them in fresh water for 25 days, changing the water every three hours. Once they dry, she cleans the threads with a carding brush to remove any remaining sediment. Then comes the hardest part: separating each strand of pure sea silk from the tangle of raw byssus. Because sea silk is three times finer than a strand of human hair, Vigo peers through a lamp with a magnifying glass as she delicately plucks each thread of silk using a pair of tweezers. Next, she twists the silk manually around a small wooden spindle, usually singing in Sardo – the closest living form of Latin – during the process. When the fibres form a long thread, she grabs a jar of cloudy yellowish liquid from the shelf. Finally, Vigo intertwines the spun silk into the linen warp using her fingernails. It takes 15 straight days of extracting and dying raw byssus to create enough threads to weave just a few centimetres.

    When held into the light, sea silk transforms from a brownish colour into a golden hue

    According to tradition, the heir to the byssus secrets is Vigo’s youngest daughter, Maddalena. Like her own grandmother, Vigo began teaching her how to dive and embroider at an early age. after creating the world’s only museum dedicated to byssus in 2005, Vigo awoke one day last autumn to find that the government of Sant’Antioco had unexpectedly closed her free Museo del Bisso, citing that the building’s electrical system wasn’t up to code.

    Chiara Vigo has an encyclopedic knowledge of 124 different natural dye variations

               Chiara Vigo prays twice a day facing the sea, once at dawn and again at dusk

    “The secrets may die with me, but the silk of the sea will live on.” 

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