ODD TRUTHS: SILK FROM THE DEPTHS OF THE SEA
The ocean is, as William Shakespeare describes in Henry V, full of “sunken wrack and sumless treasuries”. Some of these riches have yet to be discovered, while others have been harvested and cherished for generations.
In this regard, sea-silk is truly a gift of the deep. Despite not having been personally spun by Neptune’s own nereids and tritons, the gossamer-like fibre is made from the secretions of much humbler beings: mollusks. The material is incredibly rare, so we went to Felicitas Maeder of Basel’s Natural History Museum for more information.
The Custodian: How did you come to found the Sea-Silk Project?
Felicitas Maeder: Sea-silk found me! Probably there are some heritage reasons. My hometown is St. Gallen and St. Gallen is known for its embroidery. As a child I loved to play with lots of lace carefully bound together with pink and blue silk ribbons. I also loved the huge accounting books that were bound in black linen, which told of travels around the world. In addition, I always loved old books, archives, libraries and museums.
I heard the German term “Muschelseide” for the first time when I was helping to prepare a “family sunday” presentation treating mollusks and shells at the Natural History Museum Basel, Switzerland. That was in 1997, and from that moment I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I realised quickly that almost nothing was known about it. Sea-silk is only a tiny chapter of textile history – encyclopedic entries were most controversial, and even textile experts thought it would be only a myth. In 1998 I started project Sea-Silk as a volunteer at the Natural History Museum; compiling an inventory of all extant objects in sea-silk. It was important for me to show that yes, sea-silk exists! The second aim of the project was tracing the history of this almost forgotten textile material and its production and processing. The third was the documentation of the knowledge and the legacy of the cultural heritage of the Mediterranean.
In 2004 we had the world’s first thematic exhibition with an illustrated monograph. Parts of the exhibition were shown also in South Italy and in Lugano, Switzerland. My research still goes on and I present sea-silk at textile and archaeological congresses worldwide. I write papers and carrying on the project’s internet site in English, Italian, and German. In 2012, I was awarded honorary doctor of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Basel.
C: What were the ancient uses of sea-silk?
F: The oldest item is a knitted cap found in Saint Denis, near Paris. It dates to the 14th century. A thousand years earlier, in the 4th century, a woman was buried outside the Roman town Aquincum (today Budapest). Some sea-silk was found on her mummified body when the grave was excavated in 1912. Unfortunately, neither the item nor the records of the find have survived World War II. We also do not know how – and where – it was processed. As this is the only antique find at the moment we can’t definitively say how sea-silk was used. Ancient literature doesn’t tell more, alas. Don’t forget: sea-silk was at all times a very rare, precious textile, often mentioned as gift in the highest ranks of society.
C: Where were the centres of the sea-silk industry?
F: In literature dating 17th to 20th centuries many places are mentioned around the Mediterranean where the endemic bivalve Pinna nobilis was wide spread: Italy, Sicily, Spain, Dalmatia, Malta, Mallorca, Egypt, Tunisia, and others. At the moment, and for modern times, only two places haven been confirmed by material finds: Taranto in Apulia, and Sardinia. There is written evidence that sea-silk was known in Late Antiquity, but when exactly – and where – the production started is unknown.
Recent research shows that around 1800 experiments with sea-silk were made in textile centres of northern France and the Rhineland. Although textiles of sea-silk mixed with wool won awards on different exhibitions, weavers didn’t find a greater market because of the extremely difficult manufacturing process and the high costs.
C: How long did it take to make items like gloves or hats?
F: We know the process of washing, drying, cleaning, carding, and brighting the fibres in lemon juice from literature of the first and second decade of 20th century in Apulia and Sardinia. This process must have taken some days and was followed by hand spinning and knitting, weaving, embroidering, or fur-like sewing.
C: What are the most prevalent misinterpretations or misconceptions of sea silk?
F: Most of the authors or journalists writing about sea-silk never saw or touched the material. They just didn’t know what they were speaking of. And during centuries they were copying one from the other. Plagiarism is not a new phenomenon. Even in serious lexicon or encyclopedias you find mutually contradictory entries. It’s no wonder that myths and legends around sea-silk were – and still are – spread and eternised.
The biggest problem is a linguistic one – and my actual research issue. Byssus in antiquity never meant sea-silk. Byssus (In Greek Byssos) was the name of the highest quality of linen – in hieroglyphs “royal linen” – reserved e.g. for sacred use and mummy bindings. Later the term was used also for very fine cloth of cotton or silk. Only in the 16th century the fibre beard of the Pinna was named Byssus, in analogy of the fine Byssus of the ancients. Not vice versa. This fact led and still leads to the misunderstandings dominating the discussion today.
But, sea-silk existed in antiquity – we just do not know yet for sure how it was called in different languages and at different times; mostly it was paraphrased. One of the first written evidence of the use of sea-silk dates from the period around 200 AD. The church father Tertullian mentioned it:
Nec fuit satis tunicam pangere et serere, ni etiam piscari vestitum contigisset: nam et de mari vellera, quo mucosae lanusitatis plautiores conchae comant.*
*Nor was it enough to comb and sow the materials for a tunic, it was necessary also to fish for one’s dress; for fleeces are obtained from the sea, where shells of extraordinary size are furnished with tufts of mossy hair (De Pallio III, 6).
Very interesting is the fact that in the 2nd century AD Pausanias wrote about Byssus as the finest flax coming from Elis (Western Peloponnesos). This shows clearly that at that time Byssus and sea-silk were known as different textile fibres.
C: Are there any genuine sea-silk weavers still around today?
F: In Taranto the production died off with world War II. But there still live several sea-silk weavers in Sant Antioco, Sardinia. Some loud and well promoted by the mass media, some hidden and quiet. They all learned sea-silk processing from local women who for their part had learnt it at a famous weaving atelier in Sant Antioco, founded in the 1920s by Italo Diana.
A Sardinian sea-silk production is confirmed from 18th century onward. Whether sea-silk was already known in Middle Ages is not yet proven. Important is the fact, that the Pinna nobilis is a protected species since 1992. It is forbidden to fish the bivalve or to take any part of it.