The last person on Earth who still knows how to harvest, dye and embroider sea silk

  • By Eliot Stein

This is the most beautiful story that I just had to repost - Thanks to Eliot Stein.

Each spring, under the cover of darkness and guarded by members of the Italian Coast Guard, 62-year-old Chiara Vigo slips on a white tunic, recites a prayer and plunges headfirst into the crystalline sea off the tiny Sardinian island of Sant’Antioco.

Using the moonlight to guide her, Vigo descends up to 15m below the surface to reach a series of secluded underwater coves and grassy lagoons that the women in her family have kept secret for the past 24 generations. She then uses a tiny scalpel to carefully trim the razor-thin fibres growing from the tips of a highly endangered Mediterranean clam known as the noble pen shell, or pinna nobilis.

Sant'Antioco is a quiet, salty fishing town on an island of the same name

It takes about 100 dives to harvest 30g of usable strands, which form when the mollusc’s secreted saliva comes in contact with salt water and solidifies into keratin. Only then is Vigo ready to begin cleaning, spinning and weaving the delicate threads. Known as byssus, or sea silk, it’s one of the rarest and most coveted materials in the world.

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. It’s referenced on the Rosetta Stone, mentioned 45 times in the Old Testament and thought to be the material that God commanded Moses to drape on the altar in the Tabernacle.

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.

Sea silk comes from thin fibres growing from the tips of a highly endangered Mediterranean clam (Credit: Eliot Stein)

After an invitation to visit Vigo’s one-room studio, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the last surviving sea silk seamstress, watching her magically spin solidified clam spit into gold.

I slowly approached the small wooden table where Vigo worked, walking past a 200-year-old loom, glass jars filled with murky indigo and amber potions and a certificate confirming her highest order of knighthood from the Italian Republic cast aside on the floor.

“If you want to enter my world, I’ll show it to you,” she smiled. “But you’d have to stay here for a lifetime to understand it.”

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. She remembers her grandmother paddling her into the ocean in a rowboat to teach her to dive when she was three years old. By age 12, she sat atop a pillow, weaving at the loom.

My grandmother wove in me a tapestry that was impossible to unwind

“My grandmother wove in me a tapestry that was impossible to unwind,” Vigo said. “Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to the sea, just as those who have come before me.”

Vigo is known as su maistu (‘the master’, in Sardo). There can only be one maistu at a time, and in order to become one, 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.

Chiara Vigo is thought to be the last woman on Earth who can harvest, dye, and spin sea silk (Credit: Eliot Stein)

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. She lives in a modest apartment with her husband, and they live off his pension as a coal miner and donations from visitors who stop by Vigo’s studio.

Instead, Vigo explained that the only way to receive byssus is as a gift. She’s created pieces for Pope Benedict XVI and the Queen of Denmark, but more often than not she embroiders designs for newlywed couples, children celebrating a christening and women who come to her in hopes of becoming pregnant.

Selling it would be like trying to profit from the sun or the tides

“Byssus doesn’t belong to me, but to everyone,” Vigo asserted. “Selling it would be like trying to profit from the sun or the tides.”

But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. 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.

“A woman there forsake the Sea Oath and tried to establish a commercial byssus industry,” Biniecka said. “A year later, it went bankrupt and she mysteriously died.”

More recently, a Japanese businessman approached Vigo with an offer to purchase her most famous piece, ‘The Lion of Women’, for €2.5 million. It took Vigo four years to stitch the glimmering 45x45cm design with her fingernails, and she dedicated it to women everywhere.

The loom Chiara Vigo weaves on has been in her family for more than 200 years (Credit: Eliot Stein)

“I told him, ‘Absolutely not’,” she declared. “The women of the world are not for sale.”

Neither is the painstaking process behind her pieces, which she slowly revealed during my four-day visit.

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.

“It may seem easy now,” she said. “But my fingers have been practicing this for 50 years.”

Chiara Vigo uses her fingernails and a nail to embroider a small piece of sea silk cloth

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