You’ll Probably Never Get to See, Let Alone Touch, Sea Silk


SEA SILK SOUNDS LIKE THE stuff of legend. Harvested from rare clams, this thread flashes gold in the sunlight, weighs almost nothing, and comes with a heavy load of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and misinformation. But the fiber itself is no myth. Its flaxen strands come from Pinna nobilis, or the pen shell, a giant Mediterranean mollusk that measures up to a yard in length. To attach themselves to rocks or the seafloor, some clams secrete proteins that, upon contact with seawater, harden into a silky filament called byssus. The byssus of the pen shell makes sea silk, the world’s rarest thread.

The BBC reports that only one person alive knows how to spin this clam fluid into golden twine, and this is where the myth begins. By the light of the moon, 62-year-old Chiara Vigo dives up to 17 yards deep, into a network of secret underwater caves off the coast of Sardinia, where the clams can be found. As the Italian Coast Guard watches protectively from the shore, she may dive 100 times to produce a single ounce of the fibers, by trimming the byssus from each bivalve with a tiny scalpel. These beard-like growths can be up to six inches in length. The BBC further describes how she says a prayer before each dive, and adheres to a so-called ancient, sacred “Sea Oath” that prevents sea silk from being bought or sold.

Vigo’s oft-repeated claim to sole ownership of the clams’ secrets are likely untrue. Up until the 1950s, Sant’Antioco, a small island to the southwest of Sardinia, was among a few places where sea silk was manufactured. Italo Diana, a famous sea silk weaver, passed on her knowledge to many locals, including Efisia Murroni, who died in 2013, but not before teaching many others.