Sea silk


Sea silk

Sea silk is an extremely fine, rare and valuable fabric produced from the long silky filaments or byssus secreted by a gland in the foot of several bivalve mollusks (particularly "Pinna nobilis" L.) by which they attach themselves to the sea bed. ["Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged)" 1976. G. & C. Merriam Co., p. 307.]

Sea silk was produced in the Mediterranean region from the large bivalve mollusk, "Pinna" "nobilis", until early in the 20th century. The shell, which is sometimes almost a metre long, adheres itself to rocks with a tuft of very strong thin fibres, pointed end down, in the intertidal zone. These byssus or filaments (which can be up to 6 cm long) are then spun and, when treated with lemon juice, turn a beautiful golden colour which never fades.

The cloth produced from these filaments can be woven even finer than silk and is extremely light and warm, however, it attracts clothes moths, the larvae of which will eat it.

It was said that a pair of woman's gloves could fit into half a walnut shell and a pair of stockings in a snuffbox. ["Oxford English Dictionary" (1971), under Byssus.] The mollusk is also sought for its flesh and occasionally has pearls of fair quality.

The cloth was always very rare and sought after, and was often reserved for royalty. It is likely the same "sea wool" as mentioned in Diocletian's Price Edicts of 301 CE. [Felicitas Maeder (2002): "The project Sea-silk – Rediscovering an Ancient Textile Material." "Archaeological Textiles Newsletter", Number 35, Autumn 2002, p. 10.]

Procopius, writing on the Persian wars circa 550 CE, "stated that the five hereditary satraps (governors) of Armenia who received their insignia from the Roman Emperor were given chlamys (or cloaks) made from "lana pinna" (Pinna "wool," or byssus). Apparently only the ruling classes were allowed to wear these chlamys." [Turner, Ruth D. and Rosewater, Joseph 1958. "The Family Pinnidae in the Western Atlantic" "Johnsonia", Vol. 3 No. 38, June 28, 1958, p. 294.]

The cloak of a Roman Centurion, the raiment of the Egyptian King Tutankhamun, and the golden fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts have been reputed to have been spun from byssal threads.Fact|date=August 2008 The image of Jesus at Manoppello in Italy, claimed by some to be the original of the relic Veil of Veronica, is on a piece of byssus cloth.

In spite of being the subject of some fabulous tales about being derived from "sea sheep" which the Chinese did not believe, it is clear that sea silk was known as being among the products of the Roman Empire by the Chinese of the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. [Hill, John E. 2003. "The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu". A draft annotated translation from the Hou Hanshu - see Section 12 and note 15 plus Appendix B. [http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html] ] [Hill, John E. 2004. "The Peoples of the West". A draft annotated translation of the 3rd century Weilüe - see Section 12 of the text and Appendix D. [http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/weilue/weilue.html] ]

Unfortunately, in recent years, "Pinna nobilis" has become threatened with extinction, partly due to overfishing and, partly, due to the decline in seagrass fields, pollution, and so on. As it has declined so dramatically, the once small but vibrant sea silk industry has almost disappeared, and the art is now preserved only by a few women on the island of Sant'Antioco in Sardinia. [Maeder, Felicitas, Hänggi, Ambros and Wunderlin, Dominik, Eds. 2004. "Bisso marino : Fili d’oro dal fondo del mare – Muschelseide : Goldene Fäden vom Meeresgrund". Naturhistoriches Museum and Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Switzerland. (In Italian and German), pp. 68-71.]

Byssal threads contain a powerful glue which allows them to adhere strongly to surfaces such as rocks, keeping the shell in place.

Footnotes

References

* Hill, John E. 2003. "The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu". A draft annotated translation from the Hou Hanshu - see Section 12 and note 15 plus Appendix B. [http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html]
* Hill, John E. 2004. "The Peoples of the West". A draft annotated translation of the 3rd century Weilüe - see Section 12 of the text and Appendix D. [http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/weilue/weilue.html]
* McKinley, Daniel L. 1988. "Pinna and Her Silken Beard: A Foray Into Historical Misappropriations". "Ars Textrina: A Journal of Textiles and Costumes", Vol. Twenty-nine, June, 1998, Winnipeg, Canada. Pp. 9-223.
* Maeder, Felicitas 2002. "The project Sea-silk – Rediscovering an Ancient Textile Material." "Archaeological Textiles Newsletter", Number 35, Autumn 2002, pp. 8-11.
* Maeder, Felicitas, Hänggi, Ambros and Wunderlin, Dominik, Eds. 2004. "Bisso marino : Fili d’oro dal fondo del mare – Muschelseide : Goldene Fäden vom Meeresgrund". Naturhistoriches Museum and Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Switzerland. (In Italian and German).
* Turner, Ruth D. and Rosewater, Joseph 1958. "The Family Pinnidae in the Western Atlantic" "Johnsonia", Vol. 3 No. 38, June 28, 1958, pp. 285-326.

External links

"General":
* [http://www.miljolare.no/virtue/img/Species/pages/Byssus%20threads%20from%20mussel.php A photo]
* [http://www.aquatext.com/images/fish%20etc/byssus.htm Another photo]
* [http://www.designboom.com/eng/education/byssus_history.html History of Sea Byssus cloth]
* [http://www.designboom.com/eng/education/byssus_howto.html How to spin a byssus cloth]

"Definitions":
* [http://www.webster-dictionary.net/definition/Byssus Webster's defines "byssus"]
* [http://www.bartleby.com/61/28/B0592800.html American Heritage Dictionary defines "byssus"]
* [http://www.wordreference.com/english/definition.asp?en=byssus WorldReference.com on the word "byssus"]

"Scientific":
* [http://www.sciencenews.org/20040117/fob4.asp "Science News" on "Marine Superglue"]
* [http://www.lifesci.ucsb.edu/mcdb/labs/waite/byssus.html Byssus Facts]


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