Turning Spit to Silk

Fine sea silk strands (Photo by John Hill via Wikimedia Commons)




If anyone is handing out alternate lives, I will take Chiara Vigo’s. On moonlit spring nights, she slides a white tunic over her head, murmurs a prayer, and dives into the Mediterranean. Entering a network of underwater caves off the coast of Sardinia, she probes the seafloor for rare, giant mollusks, Pinna nobilis, some of them a yard long. Under the vigilant gaze of the Italian Coast Guard, Vigo dutifully obeys the law forbidding her to harvest the endangered clams. Instead, she uses a scalpel to trim their byssus.

Byssus is a beard-like growth, a snaggle of filaments as long as six inches. They form when the clam spits protein-rich saliva into the water, and they attach the clam to a rock or to the floor of the sea.

Byssus can be woven into the world’s finest, lightest, silkiest, rarest fabric. It was embroidered for Mesopotamian kings five thousand years ago. It made robes for King Solomon (we think, unless the byssus reference in the Bible was to fine linen) and, more recently, gifts for the pope and the queen of Denmark.

Taught by her grandmother, Vigo claims to be the only woman left who knows the clams’ secrets. Journalists trumpeted that fact. Then a second wave of articles, after announcing it, added that it was not quite true. Italo Diana wove sea silk and taught its secrets to others on the island of Sant’ Antioco. Elfisia Murroni taught still more people in her hundred years of life. Her pupils include two sisters on the island, Guiseppina and Assuntina Pes, and I would love to know what they think of Vigo, who wields far more dramatic flair than they do.

The larger difference, though, is that the sisters weave their dwindling stores of sea silk, which will soon be gone. Vigo is the only person diving for the stuff. After the European Union made a law protecting these rare mollusks from being damaged or harvested, she spent years puzzling out a new method. Realizing that the mud on the seafloor was soft in May, she began to dig up the clams, trim their beards, and replant them so they could quickly grow another tether.

I hope to God she leaves enough of the silk behind. A horrific image comes to me: the mollusks floating up, away from their homes, helpless in the sea’s current….

Beauty is so often linked with cruelty.

We will trust her and study her artisanal process instead. First, she soaks the silky filaments in seawater, then fresh water—changed every three hours—for twenty-five days. She cards the soaked threads to free any remaining bits of sea mud. Then she has to detangle each slender thread, using tweezers and a magnifying glass.

Here my imagination cracks. I already spew profanity when I try to thread a narrow needle, the thread splaying against the metal side of the eye or missing it entirely, then snarling or snapping as soon as I stitch. Could I muster the patience to separate sea silk, which is three times finer than human hair?

Maybe I do not want this alternative life after all?

Vigo twists the freed strands around a wooden spindle, weaving them into long threads, then drops the thread into a mix of lemon juice, spices, and algae. It elasticizes and brightens, gold shimmering through the dark bronze. On her two-hundred-year-old loom, she spins this silky thread into a linen warp and weaves cloth. Which she refuses to sell, heeding an ancient, sacred Sea Oath that forbids anyone from buying or selling this silk. It is a gift of nature, not a commodity, and she mainly saves it for newlyweds, new parents, or couples trying to conceive.

Sea silk is magical. It so fascinated people from other parts of the world that they told fabulous stories about its origin. Chinese traders dreamed up water sheep, their cloven hooves webbed like duck feet. Soon the Greeks were calling sea silk “wool of the sea.” Arab traders, meanwhile, spoke of an animal coming out of the water to rub against the rocky shore, leaving behind its silken wool. Garments spun from the stuff were said to cost more than a thousand gold pieces. In the early sixth century, Chinese lore tells of jiao-dragon people who live like fish in the water, yet still weave at the loom, weeping pearls instead of tears. What they wove was called “mermaid silk.”

People had dreamed up every source but a sow’s ear.

Sea silk’s fascination is its rarity, but also its impossible lightness. You cannot even feel it resting in your palm. Jules Verne outfited the crew of the Nautilus in the stuff for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Today, there are only sixty or so sea-silk garments in museum collections around the world. In 2019, a sea silk turban went up for auction on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In 2021, the Hindman auction house dropped the hammer on a sea silk shawl at $8,750. A Japanese businessman offered Vigo $2.5 million for “The Lion of Women,” a tiny square she stitched with her fingernails. “Absolutely not,” she told him. “The women of the world are not for sale.”

She says the secret ways of locating, removing, and weaving the silk have come down through her family, woman to woman, for one thousand years. But at last report, her rightful heir, her youngest daughter—who has made a very different life for herself in Dublin—showed no interest in continuing the tradition.

Soon, no one will know how to dye and weave sea silk. And it will not matter, because soon, thanks to warming, overfishing, the decline in seagrass fields, and pollution, there will be no more Pinna nobilis clinging to the floor of the Mediterranean and turning spit to silk.

“Every sensation of every being of the world is a mode through which the world lives and feels itself,” writes Vinciane Despret. When a species goes extinct, when “a being is no more, the world narrows all of a sudden, and a part of reality collapses.”

Taking all the myths with it.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.