Chiara Vigo, the only woman in the world who lives in a remote village in Sardinia, Italy still weaves sea silk made from Byssus - a fine filament produced by large molluscs under the sea, better known as the silk of the sea. Chiara uses traditional chants to ensure a good harvest. It is said that King Solomon used to wear a golden tunic, lighter than a feather made of it, and ancient Greeks and Egyptians used to pin a piece of this shining fabric on their robes as a sign of wealth.
The lab where Chiara works is also the only Museum of the Byssus in the world, and it sits on top of a little hill in downtown Santâ€™Antioco. This form of art was born in ancient Middle Eastern lands around 10,000 years ago.
The byssus is a fine fabric produced from the velvety strand of the noble pen shell, or pinna nobilis, an endangered fan-shaped species of mollusc, native of the Mediterranean Sea bed. Originally, the pen shell used to be fished in order to pull the byssus out, but Chiara has come up with a special cut so that she can take the secreted material without killing the precious animal.
The pen shell offers ten centimeters of byssus per year, explained Chiara, who dives herself on the lookout for the rare silk. To gather 200 grams of byssus, one need to go on 300 divings, she revealed, pointing out that it doesnâ€™t grow on the bottom of the shell, like many people think, but right here, on the side.
After collecting the byssus, the first step is to leave the raw material to soak in a mixture of eight seaweeds. Once dry, Chiara combs it with a wool card and finally twists the fine filaments together with a spindle made of oleander, forming the gilded thread. The yarn is spun quite a few times in order to make it strong enough to be employed in the loom and woven with her slender fingers.
Due to the scarcity of this type of silk, the difficulty in finding and working it, the byssus has always been too expensive to be quotable, and in ancient times only pharaohs, Roman emperors, kings or high priests could afford such luxury.
Chiara belongs to a family of artists: she was introduced to this ancient craft by her maternal grandmother, who taught traditional weaving for sixty years to Santâ€™Antiocoâ€™s women. Today her unique pieces are displayed in museums in Rome, London, New York and Parisâ€™ Louvre and donated to presidents and popes. Their worth is estimated in the hundreds of thousands of euros. But Chiara lives out of the donations left by those who visit her workshop in Santâ€™Antioco.
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