"It was necessary also to fish for one's dress"
August 10, 2015 10:14 PM   Subscribe

Chiara Vigo is the last master of weaving the sea-silk cloth bysso [byssus]and showcases her art at Museo del Bisso in Sant'Antioco, Sardinia.

Weaving Sea Silk: Chiara Vigo still works the byssus
Weaving the silk of the sea

With all this in mind, I was ready to meet Chiara Vigo, the only woman in the world who still works the byssus, better known as the silk of the sea, the same way women in ancient Mesopotamia used to weave it in order to make clothes for their kings.

“Ms. Chiara Vigo?” I approached her outside her workshop.
“Yeah, that one would be me,” she replied, showing off her witty nature.
The first moments were decisive: “I would like to make clear that I’m not an artist, nor an artisan,” she clarified before I even had the time to ask, “I’m a master. Please let’s not mix terms up.”

“Because the three professions are very different...,” I babbled tentatively. “Of course they are,” went on Chiara. “An artist creates over inspiration, an artisan produces and sells, masters pass their art on and cannot sell.”

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 Sant’Antioco. “What do you know about the byssus?” she challenged me loftily, while we motioned to her reign, an eclectic mix of archaic Sardinia and deep sea.

“Nothing,” I confessed, fully aware that there was no way I could lie about it.

“Excellent,” she retorted. “I can’t bear when someone comes here to teach me about the byssus.”

via "Things You Wouldn't Know If We Didn't Blog Intermittently."
posted by the man of twists and turns (11 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Amazing - "the golden fleece" - I had no idea. Thank you for posting this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:27 PM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised you didn't already know. What else would lobsters make their mittens from?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:42 PM on August 10, 2015 [19 favorites]

I think someone was listening to BBC Radio 4 last week :-)
posted by i_cola at 1:41 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Excellent. It reminded me of a section from the BBC's recent documentaries about Japan, where they featured three elderly women on the island of Kudaka who are the last who catch venomous sea snakes, at night, with their bare hands.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:30 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Amazing - "the golden fleece" - I had no idea. Thank you for posting this.

This is a lot more convincing than having all that fuss for a yellow sheepskin, which had always been my assumption.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:20 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I hope Signora Vigo has found, or can find, an apprentice to pass her mastery on to: if my Google-Translate-assisted understanding of the first of the links above is right, she has two daughters, but if there’s any mention of them following their mother’s vocation, I didn’t see it.

I’m curious to know what the bysso fabric feels like - in the various links it’s likened to silk, gauze, and fine linen, but is there a description of its specific tactile qualities anywhere: by Signora Vigo herself, or someone else who has got their hands on any of it?

I’m guesssing it’s not machine-washable…
posted by misteraitch at 3:22 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Byssos is actually highly water-resistant by nature, but I presume its washing qualities are like silk, wool, or other proteinaceous fibre.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:12 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

“The Bible itself mentions indirectly the byssus,” explained Chiara. “Remember when it says that King Solomon appeared shining in public? "

"Why do you think is that? He was wearing byssus-made clothes, that in the dark appear brown, but once in the light, they shine like gold.”

this is like the san gréal of blue dresses
posted by FatherDagon at 9:54 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Much more at Projekt Sea-Silk:

Byssus and Byssus - "A brief overview of encyclopaedias and textile books gives an impression of the conceptual difficulties of the term byssus:"

Production of sea-silk

Dyeing of byssus fibres

Harvesting and cleaning of the byssus beard

20th century

see also:
Looking For Sea Silk In The Bronze Age Aegean, Burke, Brendan.

and after much digging: "Pinna and her silken beard: a foray into historical misappropriations." [PDF] , McKinley, Daniel. Ars Textrina 29, no. June (1998): 9-223.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:47 AM on August 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

We met Chiara at a reading she held in Rome a couple of years ago. Though entirely charming and lyrical, I found her a tad fixated on the nuclear family: she's eager to tie a byssus ring on any little girl's finger, promising that if she brings it back to her in Sant'Antioco at eighteen, she'll make a byssus doily for her marriage bed...

There's a lovely video portrait here, narrated by Vigo herself, where she explains, among other things, her sustainable byssus farming method. One of the secrets she holds is where exactly the field of pinna nobilis that she harvests is located. As she adamantly accepts only donations, there's been an appeal (here) to have her granted the national artist's pension (Legge Bacchelli).
posted by progosk at 3:29 PM on August 24, 2015

As a follow-up, in Chiara Vigo: The last woman who makes sea silk (a BBC News Magazine article by By Max Paradiso) it’s mentioned that: ‘Vigo’s daughter - currently a student in northern Italy - will one day tread in her mother’s footsteps. “My daughter, although I will leave very little to her, will have to continue this tradition,” she says, “so humankind can benefit from it.”’
posted by misteraitch at 4:34 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

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