A woman holds up a dark brown fabric to the light. Instantly, the light reveals glittering, golden weave that shimmers under the first rays of dawn. The cloth is sea silk, an extremely rare textile made from the carefully harvested silken proteins called byssus. It can only be snipped from a clam that lives in the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea, where it hangs on by a thread, critically endangered from a pathogen that has decimated 99% of its historic population.
As uncommon as pinna nobilis is, the living women who know how to spin this filament into a workable fabric are even rarer. There is one woman alive today who holds the secret of turning these threads into brilliant, golden weaves. In the spring, Chiara Vigo dives beneath the waves of Sant’Antioco while members of the Italian Coast Guard stand sentry, both to protect her and the rare mollusks that lay beneath the surface. Before each expedition, Vigo prays in a mixture of Hebrew and ancient Sardinian. She is insistent that no one should ever make money on this rare, stunning thread. Sea silk, she says, is for everyone. To sell it would to be to sell the natural forces that shape our world: An absurdity and a waste. As she is likely the last person in the world who still harvests, processes, and knows how to dye it, it seems likely her wishes will remain firm. Vigo claims that this tradition has been passed down in her family for over 1000 years, and her method of trimming the proteins secreted from
bivalves-which she claims is nothing more than a ‘haircut’ to the clams-has been passed down generation from generation.
It takes hundreds of grams of raw fiber to turn into even small pieces of processed sea silk. Three times finer than a single human hair, byssus fiber is so light that it can hardly be felt on the skin. In centuries long-past, sea silk clothed emperors and fine ladies. Now, it is reserved for those who visit Vigo in her workspace. On occasion, she will embroider a child’s christening gown with the incredibly fine, silky threads. Women who come to her wishing to be pregnant are often sent home with a golden threaded bracelet made from the glimmering strands. She is resolute in her assertion that sea silk is not to be profited from: a Japanese businessman reportedly offered her millions of euros for a piece she’d woven, dedicated to women everywhere, measuring about 18 inches long. She refused flat-out. In an interview she did with the BBC in 2017, she recounted the story. “The women of the world are not for sale.” With the tradition slowly dying out and the future of pinna nobilis uncertain, this fabric which has delighted and fascinated the world for nearly a millennia is up in the air. It once clothed only the most elite of society and now it is gifted freely to those in need by the last great master of this ancient textile called sea silk.