Byssus: The Magic Fabric From The Sea 0 Comments

Byssus: The Magic Fabric From The Sea

The encyclopaedia reads: “Byssus is a textile fibre of animal origin, a sort of natural silk obtained from filaments secreted by a species of bivalve molluscs (Pinna Nobilis), endemic in the Mediterranean and also known as 'nacchera' or 'penna', whose processing has been developed exclusively in the Mediterranean area.

But byssus is much more than this. It’s art, it’s feeling, it’s knowledge, it’s mastery.

The byssus, silk of the sea, "cannot be sold or bought; it is given." This has always been said by the last Byssus Master of Sardinia, Chiara Vigo, who lives in Sant'Antioco.

To meet her you have to go to her 'room', the Byssus Museum of Sant'Antioco, and she tells the story of byssus: "It takes 3 spring seasons to spin 12 yards of twisted byssus and 5 years for a “clawed” work of 40 for 50 centimetres".

Being a Byssus Master also means respecting and knowing the nature and the sea. "Usually an adult of the Pinna Nobilis or Noble Pen Shell species has more than 20,000 small filaments attached to the sea bottom." It is still Chiara Vigo's voice, transcribed by Susanna Lavazza who says in her book: "Chiara Vigo, the last Byssus Master" (e-book "From the darkness to the light of Chiara Vigo's sea byssus"): "Each filament of keratin is about 25 centimetres long. To get 300 grams of raw you need to dive one hundred times." Respecting the habitat means collecting only filaments of at least 12 years old Pinna nobilis. "If only the tips of the flocks are taken with caution and method,  the animal survives; if it is torn off from the sea bottom, the mollusc dies.

"I learned from my grandma to swim in the water in the lagoon," says Chiara Vigo. "Going back home and desalinate the fibre, then prepare the colour with seashells and herbs. It all comes from the fact that my grandmother’s oral narrative and gestures are innate in me; she tied within me a tapestry that could not be undone."

Chiara, as an adult, continues to weave and embroider stories that turn up on fabrics and tales."From time to time I love telling people, who want to know my story because oral and gestural transmission cannot only be putting black on while but it creates a web of encounter to anyone who wants to enter the secret world of a Byssus Master."

The time of Mastery is the time of a whole life”, she says. “To learn to become a Master means to place your own life in a Master hands, to let yourself be moulded like clay and wait patiently for the work to be accomplished in order to be able to dispense in gift what received as a gift."

The byssus cannot be sold or bought; it is given.

Soon I had put on my byssus clothes… I informed him that they were made from the smooth, silken filaments with which the fan mussel, a type of seashell quite abundant along Mediterranean beaches, attaches itself to rocks. In olden times, fine fabrics, stockings, and gloves were made from such filaments, because they were both very soft and very warm.” (Jules Verne - 20000 Leagues Under the Seas 1870)


written by Daniela Toti


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