history of sea byssus cloth ............................................................................................................................................................................................

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history of sea byssus cloth
- august 2002

not only were molluscs used to dye cloth,
they were also used to manufacture cloth.
ancient artisans used the fine strong bysus threads
of the noble pen shell to manufacture the legendary
sea silk.
fine white linen
very little attention to detail and non consideration
of the full context of all of the uses of the word 'byssus'
has led to the fact that 'byssus' cloth has become a
legend, a tale...
we cannot be certain about the material described
with this term in so many historic texts.
the words used in the originals are often greatly
obscured through the inconsistent variations of
the translators.
two qualities of the 'byssus' are specially marked
as characteristic in 'exodus' (old testament) :
...'clothed in pure and shining linen.'
... 'she should be arrayed in byssus vestments,
shining and pure; for the byssus vestment
is the righteousness of the saints.'
in the bible the term 'byssus' is used for
the fine white egyptian linen - a plant filament
and not obtained from mollusks filaments !! -
called in the earlier writings 'shesh'; 'pesheth', 'flax',
'cadhin'; 'othonion', 'linon', 'sindon'.
sea byssus silk
it is called 'bus' in the aramaic,
from which the greek name 'bussos' originated.
like literature or a work of art, a myth is subject
to interpretation, whose meaning is malleable
through time as context changes, cultures evolve
and writers get more clever. :)
'byssus' translated by the latin word 'sericum' (silk),
means the fine sea silk.
'byssus' is
- a tuft of long, tough filaments with a deep bronze gold
coloring, which are formed between the valves of certain
bivalve mollusks, by which they attach themselves to rocks.
- a cloth of exceedingly fine texture made of byssal
fibers obtained from the 'pinna nobilis' or pen shell.
historic background
egypt, chaldaea, minor asia, persia, china were the
craddle of mankind's first civilisation and their highly
refined textiles. very long, fine, strong byssal fibers
have been used to weave cloth by these ancient
egypts have known the sea silk.
only royalty were allowed to wear the cloth made
from byssus. in a magical egyptian text there is a
passage that describes a deity who appears in the
likeness of a priest dressed in byssus
...'a gauzelike cloth of a golden hue, which is silky,
like the fine threads of many molluscs.
herodotus, the greek hystorian, who personally visited
egypt and the pyramids in 500 b.C. speaks of
a tunic found in a sarcophagus at thebes and seen
by him, tells us that it is
'made of a loose fabric of exceedingly fine thread,
as thin as that used in the manufacture of lace.
it is finer than a hair, twisted and made of two strands,
implying either an unheard of skill in hand-spinning,
or else machinery of great perfection.'

the egyptologist sir john gardner wilkinson found
byssus in the tombs of the pharaohs and counted
the threads in order to ascertain the fineness of the
weave. he found along a 25.4 mm length (1 inch) 152
threads the warp and 71 threads in the woof - -
the finest cotton produced today with the best technical
methods contains in comparison only about 88 threads.
it's thought that the 'golden fleece', sought by the
legendary greek hero jason, was woven from the pen
shell's threads.
(in greek mythology's most famous legend of gallantry
and heroism jason sets sail in the argo in search of the
'golden fleece' to avenge his father's death and to
claim his legitimate birthright to the throne as king)
the fine, diaphanous fabrics were commonly used in
making the apparel of the queen and the princesses
and the wives and daughters of rich men and high offcials.
also, as mentioned by homer hair-nets were frequently made
of the goden elean byssus. females with this kind of
head-dress frequently occur in paintings found at pompeii.
200 a. C. tertullian has written about the legendary
byssus in a short humorous speech on why he has stopped
wearing the roman 'toga' and started instead to wear the 'pallium'.
'nec fuit satis tunicam pangere et serere,
ni etiam piscari uestitum contigisset; nam et de mari uellera,
qua muscosae lanositatis lautiores conchae comant.
/ nor was it enough to plant and sow your tunic,
unless it had likewise fallen to your lot to fish for raiment.
for the sea withal yields fleeces, inasmuch as the more
brilliant shells of a mossy wooliness furnish a hairy stuff.'

indian and mediterranean cultures
until the middle ages these fibers were used to
weave a strong but supple fabric called 'cloth of gold'.
some places in italy (golfodi taranto/calabria, sardinia, sycily),
francia (corsica), greece, turkey (smyrna/today izmir),
manufactured byssus textiles as stockings and gloves.
byssus is a very light and transparent material,
this cloth was so fine that a pair of gloves made from it
could be folded and packed inside a walnut shell.
18. sec.
the eighteenth century has seen a revival of
byssus manufacture in the south of france and in
south italy.
in 1870 the french novelist jules verne published
his novel '20,000 leagues under the sea',
he writes
...' I felt so great a heat that I was obliged to take
off my coat of byssus !'

(a pen shell produces ca. 1-2 g. of raw byssus
threads. 1.000 mussels were needed for 200-300g
of fine byssus silk.)
the art of making cloth of gold has been lost to time,
and the pen shell is now much less common.
there are still a few examples (ca. 30) of the cloth in
european museums.
as far as we know there are only a few women in
sardinia who spin and weave these fine linen until today.
their extremely ancient tradition dates back to the era
of the phoenicians.

the pen shell (pinna nobilis)

chiara vigo in sant'antioco, sardinia
is one of the few women today, who are
still manufacturing byssus cloth.
see more

it must be spinned according to the mooon
see how to manufacture byssus threads


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sea byssus manufacture in sardinia (sant'antioco), 1920 ca.
courtesy museo etnografico, sant'antioco

raw sea byssus threads and byssus filaments

sea byssus spindles

tie made of sea byssus cloth
courtesy museo etnografico sant'antioco

detail of byssus tie (sea above)

byssus art work by chiara vigo