Untangling the Secrets of Sea Silk, the Ancient Mediterranean’s Elusive Luxury Textile

In the famous Greek myth, the hero Jason and his band of Argonauts seek a precious fleece, allegedly woven from the wool of a golden ram, to exchange for the throne of Thessaly. Around the same era, stories told of the biblical King Solomon describe him wearing a lightweight tunic that shimmered when he stepped into the sunlight. The New Testament repeatedly describes angels as being clothed in "pure and shining linen,” and the apostle Luke as wearing “shining garments.” But was this all just metaphorical holy light—or something real and reproducible? 

As far as anyone knows, there's never been a sheep whose wool gleamed golden. However, many theories have been concocted to explain the existence of a sparkling gold fabric long before the invention of lamé. It’s just a symbol, most say—of wealth, kingship, authority, and so on. 

But these stories also share a possible interpretation that’s based in reality: They may be referring to byssus.

Also known as sea silk, byssus is an ancient textile woven from the beard of various clams, and which appears dark brown until placed under direct light, when it glitters like gold. Although it can be made from a few different mollusks, the beard of the noble pen shell, Pinna nobilis, has historically been the preferred source. Pen shells are quite large as clams go, growing up to 4 feet in length, and produce thin but very strong filaments—solidified saliva, really—that anchor the mollusks to the floor of the sea. With strands about half the circumference of a human hair, the silken beard of P. nobilis is ideal for weaving, as it's far less coarse than that of its cousins in the pinnidae family. 

The threads of the fabric’s history are difficult to trace, beginning with the fact that the word byssus itself once referred to any precious textile. The Old Testament reportedly includes 45 mentions, but some of them, judging from the context, almost certainly refer to linen, cotton, or regular silk. The same is true for the cloth that Egyptians used to wrap mummies, which scholars have translated as “byssus." But it’s hard to be sure which byssus they’re talking about: sea silk, or another precious textile? The silken filaments that compose the pen shell’s beard are also called byssus, adding to the confusion.

And fictions have thrived around byssus: In 945, the Book of Tang (Tángshū), a historical work about the imperial Tang dynasty of China, described a golden textile called byssus as being woven “from the hair of the sea-sheep,” whatever that might have been. Estakhri, a 9th-century Persian geographer, writes similarly of an animal that runs into the sea and rubs itself against certain stones, whereupon it produces "a kind of wool of silken hue and golden color."

Much later, Jules Verne spoke of it in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In the original French version, he describes the crew of the Nautilus being dressed in byssus and detailed its aquatic origins. However, “byssus” was called “seashell tissue" or "fan mussel fabric" in English translations, which caused some readers to believe the material was dreamt up expressly for science fiction. 

The real, clam-made byssus was highly prized by the ancient Greeks and Mesopotamians, among other cultures, for not only its glittery, color-shifting properties but also for its combination of daintiness and warmth. Stockings and gloves were popular uses for sea silk; a pair of byssus gloves were reported to be so extraordinarily light they would fit folded inside of a walnut's shell, and a pair of stockings inside a snuff box. 

Women spinning bysso, from a display in Sardinia. Image credit: Sicco2007, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Byssus fell out of fashion for a few centuries, although it enjoyed a short renaissance in the 1800s among the wealthy. But aside from museum and gallery collections exhibiting vintage pieces, it’s nearly nonexistent today, and for good reason. P. nobilis is currently endangered—a victim of not just overfishing and trawling in the Mediterranean but also of pollution, to which it's highly susceptible. These factors make the harvesting of the byssus all the more difficult—and the cloth itself perhaps even more expensive than it was in ancient times.

However, Italian weaver Chiara Vigo, who says she has developed a method of harvesting the silken fibers from the pen shell without killing the creature, has been granted special clearance to dive for them in her hometown of Sant'Antioco, Sardinia, while accompanied by members of the Italian Coast Guard. Vigo’s family has been weaving byssus for centuries. She learned the trade from her grandmother—although it should perhaps be called a “trade” only loosely, since she's sworn to never sell the cloth (further adding to its scarcity). Vigo believes the cloth is sacred, calling it “the soul of the sea,” and claims to have never earned a cent (or lira) from her skill.

As the BBC notes, Vigo also believes that a gift of byssus brings good fortune to families, so she provides her service to those who appear at her studio in person. She gives byssus-embroidered christening dresses to babies, byssus bracelets to pregnant women (or those who aspire to be), and byssus rings to little girls (to bring back to Vigo when they're grown and engaged, whereupon she’ll make them a byssus doily for their marriage bed).

Rumor has it that a few elderly women on the Italian mainland still know how to weave byssus, but Vigo is the only known living master. She’s only person who can make it shine, using a special solution, and who can dye it in the traditional way. She’s also said to be the only person who is legally cleared to harvest it. And Vigo holds a secret, to boot: She’s one of the few living people who know where exactly the field of pen shells is located in the waters surrounding Sant’Antioco.

Whatever the truth behind byssus’s complicated backstory, the good news is that for now, sea silk is still quietly being woven in an ancient village on a tiny island just off of a larger island in the Mediterranean—and that Chiara Vigo is willing to share her knowledge. In addition to spending a few hours in the evenings teaching students how to weave byssus, she has also taught her daughter the craft, vowing that she’ll one day take over the family tradition. Hopefully, in an era where glitter is everywhere but traditional materials are scarce, the fabric will continue to survive, and as more than a myth. 

11 Fuzzy Facts About Pandas

Happy National Panda Day! Celebrate with some facts about everyone's favorite black-and-white bear.


Live Smarter
8 Pro Tips for Taking Incredible Pictures of Your Pets

Thanks to the internet, owning a photogenic pet is now a viable career option. Just ask Theron Humphrey, dog-dad to Maddie the coonhound and the photographer behind the Instagram account This Wild Idea. He gained online fame by traveling across the country and sharing photographs of his dog along the way. But Maddie’s impressive modeling skills aren’t the only key to his success; Humphrey has also mastered some essential photography tricks that even the most casual smartphone photographer can use to make their pet look like a social media star.


Based on her Instagram presence, you’d guess Maddie is either in the middle of a road trip or a scenic hike at any given time. That’s no accident: At a pet photography workshop hosted by Adobe, Humphrey said he often goes out of his way to get that perfect shot. “You need to keep situating yourself in circumstances to continue making great work,” he said, “even if that means burning a tank of gas and going someplace you’ve never been.”


Dog and owner on a couch.

That being said, it’s important to know your pet’s limits. Is your dog afraid of flying? Then leave him with a pet sitter when you vacation abroad. Does your cat hate the water? Resist the temptation to bring her into the kayak with you on your next camping trip, even if it would make for an adorable photo opportunity. “One thing I think is important with animals is to operate within the parameters they exist in,” Humphrey said. “Don’t go too far outside their comfort zone.”


Not every winning pet photo is the result of a hefty travel budget. You can take professional-looking pictures of your pet at home, as long as you know how to work with the space you’re in. Humphrey recommends looking at every element of the scene you’re shooting in and asking what can be changed. Don’t be shy about moving furniture, adjusting the blinds to achieve the perfect lighting, or changing into a weird outfit that will make your pup’s eyes pop.


Two dogs in outfits.

Ella and Coconut Bean.

Trying to capture glamorous photos of a moving, barking target is a hard job. It’s much easier when you have a human companion to assist you. Another set of hands can hold the camera when you want to be in the picture with your pet, or hold a toy or treat to get your dog’s attention. At the very least, they can take your pet away for a 10-minute play session when you need a break.


The advent of digital cameras, including the kind in your smartphone, was a game-changer for pet photographers. Gone are the days when you needed to be picky about your shots to conserve film. Just set your shutter to burst mode and let your camera do the work capturing every subtle blep and mlem your pet makes. Chances are you’ll have plenty of standout shots on your camera roll from which to choose. From there, your hardest job will be “culling” them, as Humphrey says. He recommends uploading them to a photo organizing app like Adobe Lightroom and reviewing your work in two rounds: The first is for flagging any photo that catches your eye, and the second is for narrowing down that pool into an even smaller group of photos you want to publish. Even then, deciding between two shots taken a fraction of a second apart can be tricky. “When photos are too similar, check the focus,” he said. “That’s often the deciding factor.”


When it comes to capturing the perfect pet photo, an expensive camera is often less important than your cat’s favorite feather toy. The most memorable images often include pets that are engaging with the camera. In order to get your pet to look where you want it to, make sure you're holding something your pet will find interesting in your free hand. If your pet perks up at anything that makes noise, find a squeaky toy. If they’re motivated by food, use their favorite treat to get their attention. Don’t forget to reward them with the treat or the toy after they sit for the photo—that way they’ll know to repeat the behavior next time.


Person with hat taking photo of dog and dog food.

According to Humphrey, your pet’s eye should be the focus of most shots you take. In some cases, you may need to do more to make your pet the focal point of the image, even if that means removing your face from the frame altogether. “If there’s a human in the photo, you want to make them anonymous,” Humphrey said. That means incorporating your hands, legs, or torso into a shot without making yourself the star.


This is the mantra Theron Humphrey repeated throughout his workshop. You can scout out the perfect location and find the perfect accessories, but when you’re shooting with animals you have no choice but to leave room for flexibility. “You have to learn to roll with the mistakes,” Humphrey said. What feels like a hyperactive dog ruining your shot in the moment might turn out to be social media gold when it ends up online.


More from mental floss studios