Sea silk, the sumptuous fabric used since Antiquity and made with the byssus of a mollusk

Could women’s gloves be squeezed into half a nutshell? It is what was said in other times, as proof of its quality and finesse, of silk gloves. But the idea did not refer to any silk but to a very specific and special one: the sea silk. Yes, the oceans also provide that raw material, although obviously not manufactured by worms. In this case, the authors are molluscs and, to be exact, an endemic to the Mediterranean called nacra.

The nacra, a bivalve whose scientific name is Pinna nobilisis quite similar to the mussel, although it belongs to another taxonomy (mytilidae): both are of the same class but differ in family, genus and species. They are also distinguished by the fact that the shell sits vertically on the seabed, normally in the posidonia meadows; Given that they are disappearing from the bottom at a forced march, the mollusk is losing its natural habitat and is approaching the danger of extinction, aggravated by the dragging of the anchors, pollution and the proliferation of invasive species.

But surely the biggest difference compared to the mussel is the size. The nacra shell, the largest in the Mediterranean, can exceed a meter in length, and this is the key to its usefulness in providing the aforementioned sea silk. And it is that, like other mollusks, it also has a byssus, the hairy tuft with which it clings to the rocks. The byssus, a word of Hebrew origin, is secreted by a gland and takes the form of a lock of very fine yellowish thread, measuring between fifteen and twenty centimeters.

A nacra shell. On the far left you can see the byssus / Photo: John Hill on Wikimedia Commons

In ancient times, fishermen considered that it had therapeutic properties, so they used it as a medicine for otitis and, above all, to heal the frequent wounds that were made when handling hooks. It is true that they also caught shells for their meat and, if they were lucky, for the occasional pearls they might contain, although these were not of as good a quality as the oysters.

Now, properly spun and exposed to the sun so that they permanently adopt an intense golden tone (which has given rise to the interpretation that the Golden Fleece that the Argonauts were looking for was byssus), these fibers had a special quality: they allowed the fabric of the same name to be made. , which due to the limitations of raw material -despite the size of the mollusk- was expensive and sumptuous, therefore exclusive to the wealthy classes. It is what was popularly called sea ​​silk because the threads were even finer than those of real silk, resulting in lighter and, curiously, very warm. Hence the walnut shell that, in a stocking version, would be in a snuffbox.

Mother-of-pearl bypass showing the fineness of its threads/Photo: John Hill on Wikimedia Commons

The byssus was so strange in the eyes of the people of other times that the most unusual origins were attributed to it, as we have seen with the classic story of Jason. For example, the Chinese called it jiaoxiaoWhat does it mean mermaid silkalthough they also had references to the jiaoren or dragon men and they referred to the existence of aquatic sheep from which that wool was extracted to make the cloth haixi (that is, Egyptian); although some author like the historian Fan Ye demystified the thing, like the hou han shu (Book of the Last Han) and the tang bookthe name lasted a long time.

Asians weren’t the only ones in that regard. The Arabs called it ṣūf al-baḥr, sea wool, and a ninth-century geographer named Estakhri said that it came from a marine animal that eventually washed up on the shore and rubbed against the rocks to shed its layer of golden wool. Later he was endorsed by other authors such as Ibn al-Baitar, an Andalusian doctor and botanist who in his work Kitāb al-Jāmiʻ li-mufradāt al-adwiya wa-l-aghdhiya (Compilation book of medicines and simple food products) brings together the names of one thousand four hundred species of pharmacological use.

Now, the first news about sea silk is much earlier; date back to the end of the 2nd century BC (although this does not mean that it was not used before, since nacra shells have appeared in Mycenaean and Cretan ruins) and we find them in a document that is exceptional in itself: the famous Stone of Rosetta, found in 1799 by a French soldier during the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt and translated in 1822 by the linguist Jean-François Champollion. The text tells how Pharaoh Ptolemy V reduces taxes to the priestly caste and among the tributes one that was paid in kind, in byso, is outlined. However, it is not clear if he really referred to marine silk or a very fine type of linen used to make sleeping sheets and bandages for mummies.

Around that same time we have the testimony of Alcifrón, a Greek sophist writer of whom only his name and his work are known: one hundred and eighteen letters divided into four books entitled Fisherman Cards, Farmer Cards, Parasite Cards Y courtesan letters. In one of the epistles, Galen to Critomention the “sea wool”. And a few decades later it is Tertullian himself, a North African writer considered one of the fathers of the Church and introducer of the concept of the Trinity, who speaks of the use of byssus to make the pallium (the blanket that tended to replace the toga among the Romans in that republican period): «It was also necessary to fish to get one’s clothing; in search of a fiber obtained in the sea where shells of extraordinary size live with tufts of mossy hairs.

Already in the imperial stage, in the year 301 AD, Diocletian promulgated the Edictum De Pretiis Rerum Venalium, an edict that regulated the prices of almost a thousand and a half products -including the cost of labor-, including marine silk. Two centuries later, the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea, whose works are a fundamental source for learning about Justinian’s reign, leaves testimony of the payment that the emperor made to five Armenian satraps in the form of tunics made of “lana pinna«, exclusive to the ruling class. Furthermore, it is said that Justinian’s wife, Theodora, had an embroidered sea silk dress.

The use of byssus in textile making continued over the centuries, always with that exceptional and luxury character (although on occasions it was used for other things, such as the uniforms worn by the crew of the ship). nautilus in Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). The oldest preserved piece was found in 1912 when excavating the burial of a noble lady in Aquincum, present-day Budapest, and was dated to the 4th century BC; unfortunately it was destroyed during World War II.

As strange as it may seem, sea silk weaving is still practiced today, it is true that as a traditional custom: it is a craft made by some women from Sant’Antioco, a neighboring island of Sardinia, where even a section in the local ethnographic museum. The technique used in embroidery is called unghiata but it only allows very small garments to be made, given the scarcity of byssus that exists as molluscs are protected.


Harvesting the sea. The exploitation of marine resources in the Roman Mediterranean (Annalisa Marzano)/Purpureae Vestes. Dresses, textiles and dyes. Studies on the production of consumer goods in Antiquity (Proceedings of the II Symposium on Textiles and dyes of the Mediterranean in the ancient world. Athens, November 24-26, 2005 (VVAA)/Textile Terminologies from the Orient to the Mediterranean and Europe, 1000 BC to 1000 AD (Salvatore Gaspa, CŽcile Michel and Marie-Louise Nosch)/Woven threads. Patterned textiles of the Aegean Bronze Age (Maria Shaw and Anne Chapin)/Wikipedia

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