Why is this interesting? - The Sea Silk Edition

On mollusks, knitting, and the wonderful world of byssus

Edith Zimmerman (EZ) is a writer and illustrator who runs the comics section Spiralbound and illustrates the sobriety newsletter The Small Bow. She was the founding editor of The Hairpin, and she now publishes a newsletter called Drawing Links

Edith here. My mom and I just got back from a vacation to Sanibel Island, Florida. The area is famous for its shell-filled beaches, and on our last day there, we went to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, which we’d been driving past and talking about daily. 

The whole museum was great (I’d had no idea that shells were so fascinating), but for me the best part was a small exhibition that I almost missed, about something called sea silk.

Why is this interesting?

Sea silk is a fiber made from the tufts of giant mussels (or, noble pen mollusks). These tufts—called byssus—can grow up to 2 1/3 inches, and their fibers are unusually strong and light. People have been collecting byssus since antiquity, to spin into thread and weave it into fabric, known as sea silk. Garments made of sea silk are prized for being both light and warm, but sea silk’s real allure is that when it’s submerged in something acidic, like cow urine or lemon juice, it turns from a dull brown into something that glitters like gold in the sun—and retains that quality permanently. Supposedly a pair of sea silk gloves were so light and fine that they could fit into half a walnut shell, although that seems likely to be apocryphal. 

I’m a knitter, and this all appealed to me immediately. I described the exhibition in a comic that I shared in my own newsletter, and which is included as the comic of the day below. I wish I had taken more photos of the exhibition itself—it doesn’t seem to be listed on the Shell Museum’s website—but it was arranged by a woman named Joyce Matthys, who’s an expert shell collector and a member of both the Oregon Shell Club and the Sanibel Shell Club. She ended up collecting byssus herself and making a tiny pseudo-garment, which she displayed in the exhibition, but I’m getting ahead of myself...

In the exhibition, Matthys said that she was the only person outside of the Mediterranean believed to be currently making any sea silk. 

She also mentioned an Italian woman, named Chiara Vigo, who’s been making sea silk in Sardinia for decades and is known as the last living sea silk master. (The noble pen mollusks from which the byssus is harvested are endangered and protected, so it is likely a dying art.) Vigo is also the proprietor of the Byssus Museum, in Sant'Antioco, which doubles as her workshop. The BBC ran a story about her in 2015, and I liked this quote she provided: "The byssus is the soul of the sea. It is sacred.” She apparently gives byssus bands to newlyweds, pregnant women, and others. 

There are photographs of sea silk on Vigo’s Instagram account and on her website, although for me they tantalize more than satisfy. I want to see it moving and glittering! Other photos of sea silk garments online are similarly frustrating, like the plain-looking brown glove featured on Wikipedia’s sea silk page.  

In the Shell Museum exhibition, Matthys included a photo of her own sea silk creation alongside a photo she took of it in direct sunlight. This came pretty close to capturing the glitter, but I still wanted to hold a whole ream of it, somewhere outdoors. Also to knit with it. It all began to remind me of the Rumpelstiltskin story, in which a young woman is temporarily gifted the ability to spin straw into gold. Maybe the ineffability is part of its appeal. (EZ)

Comic of the Day:

Here’s my comic (it takes some personal turns toward the end, feel free to skip past those): 

Quick Links:

  • A hat made of sea silk was auctioned in New York last fall. Its estimated price was $5,000 - $8,000, although the auctioneer told the Guardian that this was just a wild guess (and: “we’ll see how well-informed the market is”). I can’t tell how much the hat ended up selling for, although it might be still available? (EZ)

  • That Guardian story also had a nice section glossing over sea silk’s appearances in history: “According to the sixth-century historian Procopius, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I gave a gift of a sea silk cloak to five Armenian satraps. ... The British admiral Horatio Nelson wrote of his intention to send his lover, Emma Hamilton, a pair of gloves made from byssus. Jules Verne chose to dress his narrator in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Dr Pierre Aronnax, in ‘sea-boots, an otterskin cap, a greatcoat of byssus lined with sealskin.’” (EZ)

  • Byssus also reminds me of golden orb spider silk, which feels similarly perverted and decadent, in a kind of musty way. What else can we turn into fabric? (EZ)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Edith (EZ)


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