is an extremely fine, rare and valuable
produced from the long silky
filaments or byssus
secreted by a gland in
the foot of several bivalve mollusks (particularly Pinna nobilis
L.) by which they attach
themselves to the sea bed.
was produced in the Mediterranean region from the large bivalve mollusk, Pinna nobilis, until early in
the 20th century.
The shell, which is sometimes almost a
metre long, adheres itself to rocks with a tuft of very strong thin
fibres, pointed end down, in the intertidal zone
. These byssus or filaments
(which can be up to 6 cm long) are then spun and, when treated with
juice, turn a beautiful golden colour
which never fades.
The cloth produced from these filaments can be woven even finer
than silk and is extremely light and warm; however, it attracts
, the larvae of which will
eat it. It was said that a pair of woman's gloves could fit into
half a walnut
shell and a pair of stockings
in a snuffbox
. The mollusk is also sought
for its flesh and occasionally has pearls of fair quality.
Sea silk is identified with byssus
which was a rare white fabric in the ancient Mediterranean, but
scholars disagree over this connection.
The Greek text of the (196 BCE) Rosetta
records that Ptolemy V
taxes on priests, including one paid in byssus
usually translated as "fine linen cloth". In Ancient Egyptian burial
, byssus cloth was used to wrap mummies
first records "sea wool" in his (ca. 2nd
century CE) "Galenus to Cryton" letter.
The early Christian Tertullian
160-220 CE) mentions it justifying his wearing a pallium
instead of a toga
Nor was it enough to comb and to sow the materials for
It was necessary also to fish for one's dress; for
fleeces are obtained from the sea where shells of extraordinary
size are furnished with tufts of mossy hair.
Sea silk is one interpretation of the golden fleece
sought by Jason and the Argonauts
refute this hypothesis.
Several sources mention lana pinna
"pinna wool". Emperor
's (301 CE) Edict on Maximum Prices
it as a valuable textile.
The Byzantine historian Procopius
550 CE) Persian War
, "stated that the five hereditary
(governors) of Armenia who received
their insignia from the Roman Emperor were given chlamys
(or cloaks) made from lana pinna
Apparently only the ruling classes were allowed to wear these
name for "sea silk" is
"sea wool". The 9th-century Persian geographer
notes that a sea-wool robe cost
more than 1000 gold pieces and records its mythic source.
At a certain period of the year an animal is seen
running out of the sea and rubbing itself against certain stones of
the littoral, whereupon it deposes a kind of wool of silken hue and
This wool is very rare and highly esteemed, and nothing
of it is allowed to waste.
Two 13th-century authors, Ibn
, repeat this "sea wool" story.
Beginning in the Eastern Han
(25-220 CE), Chinese histories document importing sea silk from the
. Chinese language
names include "cloth from
the west of the sea" and "mermaid silk".
The (3rd century CE) Weilüe
"Brief Account of the Wei", which was an unofficial history of the
empire (220-265 CE), records
海西 "West of the Sea" cloth made from
水羊 "water sheep".
They have fine brocaded cloth that is said to be made
from the down of 'water-sheep'.
It is called Haixi ('Egyptian')
This country produces the six domestic animals
[traditionally: horses, cattle, sheep, chickens, dogs and pigs],
which are all said to come from the water.
It is said that they not only use sheep's wool, but
also bark from trees, or the silk from wild silkworms, to make
brocade, mats, pile rugs, woven cloth and curtains, all of them of
good quality, and with brighter colours than those made in the
countries of Haidong (“East of the Sea”).
The (ca. 5th century CE) Hou
"Book of the Eastern Han" expresses doubt about
"water sheep" in the "Products of Daqin
Roman Empire)" section. "They also have a fine cloth which some
people say is made from the down of 'water sheep,' but which is
made, in fact, from the cocoons of wild silkworms". The historian
(398-445 CE), author of the Hou
, notes this section's information comes from the report
that General Ban Yong
班勇 (son of General
班超, 32-102 CE) presented to the
Emperor in 125. Both Bans administered the Western Regions
on the Silk Road
The (945 CE) Tang shu
Tang" mentioned Haixi
cloth from Folin 佛菻 "Syria", which
identified as sea silk from Greece. "There is also a stuff woven
from the hair of sea-sheep, and called hai si pu
from the western sea)". He notes, "This is, perhaps, the
, a clothstuff woven up to the present time by the
Mediterranean coast, especially in Southern Italy, from the
thread-like excrescences of several sea-shells, (especially
The (early 6th century CE) Shuyiji
遹異記 "Records of Strange
Things" mentions silk woven by Jiaoren
-dragon people", which Edward H. Schafer
identifies as sea silk.
In the midst of the South Sea are the houses of the
kău people who dwell in the water like fish, but have not
given up weaving at the loom.
Their eyes have the power to weep, but what they bring
forth is pearls.
This aquatic type of raw silk was called jiaoxiao
"mermaid silk" or jiaonujuan
蛟女絹" mermaid women's
image of Jesus
at Manoppello in Italy, believed by some to be the original
Veil of Veronica, is painted on a
piece of byssus cloth.
The Italian names for "sea silk" are
"fish wool" or lana penna" "pinna
Unfortunately, in recent years, Pinna nobilis
threatened with extinction, partly due to overfishing and, partly,
due to the decline in seagrass
pollution. As it has declined so dramatically, the once
small but vibrant sea silk industry has almost disappeared, and the
art is now preserved only by a few women on the island of Sant'Antioco in Sardinia.
The earliest usage of the English name sea silk
uncertain, but the Oxford
bivalve mollusc of the genus Pinna
- Bretschneider, Emil. 1871. On the Knowledge Possessed by the Ancient Chinese of
the Arabs and Arabian Colonies and Other Western
- Hill, John E. 2003. The Western Regions according to the Hou
Hanshu. A draft annotated translation from the Hou Hanshu – see Section 12 and note 15 plus
- Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West. A draft
annotated translation of the 3rd century Weilüe – see Section 12 of the text and Appendix
- Laufer, Berthold. 1915. "The Story of the Pinna and the Syrian Lamb", The
Journal of American Folk-lore 28.108:103-128.
- McKinley, Daniel L. 1988. "Pinna and Her Silken Beard: A Foray
Into Historical Misappropriations". Ars Textrina: A Journal of
Textiles and Costumes, Vol. Twenty-nine, June, 1998, Winnipeg,
Canada. Pp. 9-223.
- Maeder, Felicitas 2002. "The project Sea-silk – Rediscovering
an Ancient Textile Material." Archaeological Textiles
Newsletter, Number 35, Autumn 2002, pp. 8-11.
- Maeder, Felicitas, Hänggi, Ambros and Wunderlin, Dominik, Eds.
2004. Bisso marino : Fili d’oro dal fondo del mare –
Muschelseide : Goldene Fäden vom Meeresgrund. Naturhistoriches
Museum and Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Switzerland. (In Italian and
- Schafer, Edward H. 1967. The Vermillion Bird: T'ang Images
of the South. University of California Press.
- Turner, Ruth D. and Rosewater, Joseph 1958. "The Family
Pinnidae in the Western Atlantic" Johnsonia, Vol. 3 No.
38, June 28, 1958, pp. 285-326.