The Last Sea-silk seamstress
September 9, 2017 9:31 PM   Subscribe

The Last Sea-silk seamstress "It takes about 100 dives to harvest 30g of usable strands, which form when the mollusc’s secreted saliva comes in contact with salt water and solidifies into keratin. Only then is Vigo ready to begin cleaning, spinning and weaving the delicate threads. Known as byssus, or sea silk, it’s one of the rarest and most coveted materials in the world."
posted by dhruva (13 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Vigo is known as su maistu (‘the master’, in Sardo). There can only be one maistu at a time, and in order to become one, you must devote your life to learning the techniques from the existing master. Like the 23 women before her, Vigo has never made a penny from her work. She is bound by a sacred ‘Sea Oath’ that maintains that byssus should never be bought or sold.

That's really amazing dedication. It's the kind of thing that should be celebrated and serve as an inspiration for all.

What’s more, after creating the world’s only museum dedicated to byssus in 2005, Vigo awoke one day last autumn to find that the government of Sant’Antioco had unexpectedly closed her free Museo del Bisso, citing that the building’s electrical system wasn’t up to code.
“The ‘electrical problem’ was me!” Vigo snapped. “The municipality tried to force me to charge entrance fees and write down my patterns and secrets. But I will defend this sacred oath with my fingernails as long as I breathe!”

Of course instead it could be used as yet another way to try and force people to conform to petty dictates and capitalist demand.

posted by gusottertrout at 9:41 PM on September 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:55 PM on September 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Fascinating...and poignant. Thank you for sharing this, dhruva.
posted by darkstar at 10:10 PM on September 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

People and enterprise so esoteric evoke conflicting responses in me. On one hand, all of its exquisite character of sacrifice and secreted knowledge is beguiling and contrary and necessary to a pace of a modern world...I am reassured of something (I don't know exactly what), but deep down within me and long ago, like a fairytale or making a wish.

On the other, all of its incongruity makes me suspicious-- Oh, this is some claptrap for the very, very rich that has fallen out of fashion for some reason and has operated outside any reasonable scrutiny. A competitor mysteriously died, eh? Uh-huh. And this high priestess can only gift this immeasurably scarce resource to, well, Popes and the like?

Like I say, conflicted.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 10:27 PM on September 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

lazycomputerkids, did you miss the part where Sea Silk is never to be sold, but can only be given as a gift? Vigo turned down a €2.5-million offer for one of her pieces, and lives in a one-room apartment on her husband's mining pension. It appears to be more of a sacred calling than an industry.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:49 AM on September 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

I loved this when I first read it. If I could get to Italy I would die to learn from this woman. But we'd need a translator. I think the saddest part for me was that she DOES have daughters but they don't want to do it. *Sigh*
posted by polly_dactyl at 6:53 AM on September 10, 2017

It's also good to read the whole article rather than stopping at the Pope:
...more often than not she embroiders designs for newlywed couples, children celebrating a christening and women who come to her in hopes of becoming pregnant. “Byssus doesn’t belong to me, but to everyone,” Vigo asserted. “Selling it would be like trying to profit from the sun or the tides.”
Being jaded by capitalism is one thing, but badmouthing generosity isn't going to help build alternatives.
posted by fraula at 8:05 AM on September 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

I can sorta understand why her daughters don't want to do it, though. It seems like a pretty ascetic life; lots of extremely difficult and demanding work with little reward and maybe a bit of government persecution on the side. Everybody deserves the opportunity to live their own life.

The Italian government should be funding this lady and whoever is willing to follow her, not harassing her for refusing to share secrets that have been kept in her family for 24 generations. They should be supporting her and helping to make sure that becoming the 25th master is an attractive proposition.

It's not as if the practice would be sustainable on a large scale; Pinna nobilis is endangered, and while Vigo doesn't seem to be harming the clams, no doubt any kind of commercial-scale byssus harvesting would be disruptive to them.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:45 AM on September 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Ah, except that what the article doesn't mention is that byssus (which turns out to be a scientific term rather than another word for sea silk, which is a product derived from byssus) is what bivalves including Pinna nobilis use to anchor themselves to the substrate. Harvesting it probably does harm the creatures. Since they're already endangered, maybe it would be best to leave them alone from now on.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:52 AM on September 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Last time byssus was mentioned on the blue, I went on a big kick, trying to learn everything I could about it. It's a truly fascinating fabric, even if it doesn't have some of the almost magical properties it's claimed to have, e.g. fitting into a walnut shell.

However, one of the first bits of info I found in my search was that this person is definitely not the last last to work with the byssus. She well may be the last person in her town or region, but there are at least still a few people out there who do it. Aaaaaand their opinion of Vigo is, well:

"the sisters Assuntina e Giuseppina Pes [...] (contradict) the claims of Chiara Vigo who is credited as having "invented with an extraordinary imagination her own story of sea-silk and [spinning] it tirelessly and to the delight of all media on and on.'"

Still, however she represents herself, it's good that she's helping the art get press and contributing to preserving it's legacy.
posted by Krazor at 9:54 AM on September 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I love acts of artistry tied to an environment, or process. This is enchanting. The deep history of this harvest, spins the feel of myth.
posted by Oyéah at 10:17 AM on September 10, 2017

The conservation of a sea silk glove; photo of the glove.
posted by gudrun at 5:49 PM on September 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

You’ll Probably Never Get to See, Let Alone Touch, Sea Silk
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. In her 2015 book, Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells, marine biologist Helen Scales tells the story of Giuseppina and Assuntina Pes, two sisters on Sant’Antioco who learned the preparation of sea silk from Murroni, as did other neighbors and friends who have received less media attention than Vigo.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:33 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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