Sea silk /Treasures of the  Sea – A field study in Sardenia  September 2022

Sea silk /Treasures of the  Sea – A field study in Sardenia  September 2022

By Susanne Lervad, terminologist, Centre for Textile research (CTR)  at the University of Copenhagen 

CTR published in 2017 the book about Sea Silk and Shellfish Purple Dye in Antiquity - proceedings from a workshop in Lecce in 2013.  Now almost 10 years after, I travelled to Sardenia – Sant’Antioco with two textile artists from Denmark and Sweden who work with mussel fibres. We wanted to visit the Pes sisters whom I met in Lecce in 2013 where the processing of raw sea silk to byssus threads is ongoing. I would encourage everybody to go and visit the sites – workshops and museums in Sant’Antico are fabulous! 

Sea silk is a product of the fan shell Pinna Nobilis with a length of up to 1 meter and more it is the largest shellfish of the Mediterranean. The scientific name of these filaments is byssus. The byssus of the fan shell is a tuft of fine, tear-resistant protein fibres generated by the byssus and in the foot of the mussel – up to 20 cm long. 

Byssus is – as explained the scientific term for the filaments of bivalves e.g. Pinna Nobilis but also a term known from various classical texts and from the Bible. Much has been published about it by textile specialists, linguist and historians of the antiquity, p. 4-5 in Treasures of the Sea – Felicitas Maeder. For more 

In the terminology context, it should be said that sea silk /byssus is a linguistic problem – as a textile term it is deeply rooted in the realm of myths and legends. The definition of the concept is though clear: Byssus as a zoological not very old term from the 16th century  - the fibre beard of various bivalve marine mollusc in analogy to the antique textile called Byssus. 

The Pes sisters tell about about the living tradition: 

“Sant’ Antioco is a small island in the southwest of Sardenia. A place rich in history and cultural heritage where traditions from the elders are passed on to new generations. One of these traditions handed down, both orally, and in written form, regards the working of byssus, sea silk. In the years 1923-1924 in the school opened by the master Italo Diana, cotton, wool, and linen were carded, yarned, dyed and finally woven into magnificent textiles. In addition to these more traditional fabrics, the girls also learnt the working of sea silk, obtained from the byssus of the seashell, Pinna Nobilis.One of the young girls, Efisia Murroni, attending the school from the age of 15, became an expert craftswoman in the art of producing sea silk.  

Sea silk is a material and shines like gold in the sun, fades and changes colours in countless shades. Today many scholars are interested in this fibre because of its rarity and the peculiarity of the fibre.  From the 1990s until her death in 2013, Efisia passed on her knowledge to the sisters, Assuntina and Giussepina Pes, both already experts in traditional weaving. …. The gathering of the byssus tuft is now banned because the Pinna nobilis that produces it was put under the protection of the European Union (EU) Habitat Directive in 1992. For the workshop held in Lecce in 2013 by CTR, the Pes sisters used small samples of byssus given to them by their teacher Efisia permitting a demonstration of the ancient manufacturing process of sea silk, from cleaning, combing and spinning and weaving. They also showed a small Sardinian loom with a small piece of textile, war and weft of sea silk.  

Raw byssus comes in the form of a mass composed of byssus filaments mixed and tangled with the seaweed, little shells, pebbles and much sand. The first cleaning processes done in sea water and the next step involves carding and combing. The very fine and delicate fibres need much attention and is difficult. This will also make the byssus tufts more smooth and shiny. Combing is done with a tight-toothed comb, calmly and gently, starting from the end of the fibres. Then the fibres are ready for spinning with a small spindle of hardwood. Now the sea silk is ready to be woven. In order to obtain the beautiful golden colour, the cleaned byssus tuft is set for 24/36 hours in lemon juice, re-washed, dried and combed ”p .65-66 -  from The Treasures of the Sea, - Sea silk and Shell fish Purple from Antiquity edited by H. Enegren & F. Meo, Ancient textile Series, Oxbow 30