cloth that came from the sea
is neither a tale nor a miracle. It is
a truth. At least, it is a truth simple enough when one considers nature
and expects it to provide endless wonders.
the blank pages of history
our ancestors must have had such expectations.
We might say that to them nature was the fulcrum of
religious feelings and the levee point of both sensibility and intelligence.
On the Mediterranean shores, the
prime settlers faced the sea and, at the call of its endlessness,
they generated timeless cultures.
|Trying to trace precisely the
origins of Sea Silk is probably a hopeless task : one has to
go down the scale of times, to the people who first weaved between
the Mediterranean sea and the middle-east hinterland a bartering network,
the threads of which seem now out of focus.
Yet, the Old Testament speaks of the Sea Silk associated with
the purple marine dye : Salomon (Chronicles, chant II) request
from the king of Tyro (Phoenicia - Lebanon) a master weaver of Sea Silk
who must be equally skilled in dying the cloth with the purple and
scarlet colors extracted from the murex sea-shell. An other chant
tells us of a choir of Levites who wore robes made of Sea Silk.
Altogether, the old biblical text refers 45 times to the Sea Silk.
These could only
develop through cultural interactions, however distant.
One actor in this
interplay is known as Sea Silk or
the inhabitants of ancient Sardinia, as
the Cretans and Phoenicians met with weavers-dyers from
either continental Chaldea or the Nil valley, then
began the millennium old saga of the fabulous Sea
Firmly planted on soft sea-floor, a giant
bivalve mollusc -Pinna nobilis-
produces tufts of fibbers which, thanks to punctilious care - carding,
cleaning and spinning - can be weaved into an exceptional cloth : it is
not only silky with a golden glow, it is also elastic, solid (when stretched,
the threads can be a mere 2/100th millimetre and retain all of their strength),
weather and fireproof. Of old, vast quantities of sea-shell were fished,
so as to produce enough thread to weave or embroider dresses for persons
of high rank the least of them being courtesan ladies and dancers :
when wearing a Sea Silk cloth, one appears as dressed with glowing
light. So, there once was a very profitable industry of Sea Silk,
twinned with that of Sea Purple, both making use of the never-ending
manpower provided by the numerous population of slaves.
The giant mollusc
lives in shallow waters
where it was fished intensively. To this purpose the gatherers used a
specific tool, mentioned by Plino as pernilegum, which consisted
of two curved iron rods that worked like pliers at
the end of a wooden handle of adapted length. All the fishermen had to
do was to get hold of the shell between the two hands of the pernilegum
and then rotate it at a 90° angle to uproot the shell from the sea
floor. The pernilegum was used by the fishermen of Tarento (Italy)
and, elsewhere, other tools served the same purpose. Thus, a rope with
a split-knot could be used, only it required two workers : a diver who
tied the loop to the shell and a sailor who pulled the catch on board.
But, whatever fishing tool was used,
the full length - some 25 centimetres - of the tuft was cut
off from its base, which is within the shell itself. To this purpose the
shell was opened and hence died.
each one weighing about 1,5 gram, must be repeatedly washed in soft water
during 12 days, until the fibbers become salt free and attain their optimal
elasticity. Alternatively, the tufts are set to dry in a place secluded
from daylight and fairly ventilated.
lighten the colour of the fibbers and, hence, enhance their luminescent
quality, the tufts were dipped in cow urine. But, since citrus fruits
became common in the Mediterranean world, lemon juice is used instead
of urine, to the same end in a 36 hours bath.
Afterwards, there comes more washing, done with soapwort herbs, and alternate
periods of drying in the shade.
When this is over, the tufts still show
impurities and incrustations. To clean these away, the tufts are carded,
first with a plank sparred with nails, the with a fine metallic brush.
carding - the silky golden locks having lost 5/6 of their initial
weight - comes spinning. The clean fibbers are now so tenuous that
they seem intangible, and the lightest and most sensitive touch is required.
Thus, spinning was solely trusted to young maiden whose hands had not
yet been roughed with harsh labour.
The required spindle is about 30 centimetres long and weighted with lead,
such as the ones used in Tarento (Italy) or Cyprus. The end product is
either a single thread, good for embroidery work, or doubled and twisted
hence stronger as required for weaving.
The sea-silk was weaved on looms either vertical - such as the Greek
or Persian ones - or horizontal - as used in Mesopotamia.
All in all, the gathering of a thousand giant shells was required to produce
as little as 250 grams of sea-silk thread.
was only dyed with sea-purple.
The fact that both cloth and dye are by-products of
the marine world can hardly be considered a coincidence. The sea-purple
dye (indigo dibromid) is produced by specialised glands of the murex,
an other mollusc with a twisted, fluted, spiked, hard shell.
To produce more dye, the murex-shells were picked at mating times, that
is during the full moons of March and June, when the molluscs gather in
every springtime, shell pickers could be seen walking the Mediterranean
shoal waters which their specially woven little round basket. Near many
antic cities off the shores of North Africa, Southern Europe and the Middle
East, huge deposits of shells, often mistaken for natural hills, are indeed
testimonials of the importance and ubiquity of the sea-purple industry.
The foul smelling crimson producing
glands are located next to the intestine of the mollusc and they must
be taken whole. Hence, the hard shell must be broken with one measured
knock, without squashing the animal. The glands were laid with sea-salt
in huge earthen jars, where they were left to macerate for 3 days. Then
the mixture was diluted with half its volume of soft water, before being
put to slow fire for 10 days. To assure continuous temperature control,
the lead caldron containing the stuff was placed in a pit laid with bricks,
linked by an horizontal pipe to a distant fire-place. As the boiling went
on, the mixture was filtered until it became perfectly liquid. The dye
gave hues ranging from light blue to bright pink, from dark crimson to
fall of the flourishing production
sea-silk came during reign of Emperor Justinian (500 AC) when two Persian
monks brought to the Constantinople's court silk-worm eggs and mulberry
trees which they had "obtained" on the Chinese border.
Production of the new silk-cloth initiated in the island of Chio and,
in no time it spread to Sicilia before reaching all Mediterranean shores.
The giant sea-shell could hardly compete against the silk-worm whose production
is definitely more abundant. As the luxury cloth market lost all interest
for the sea-silk, its industry disappeared to survived only as a household
activity whose techniques will be handed as secrets from mother to daughters.
Up to now, woven or embroided, rare and priceless pieces of sea-silk celebrate
exceptional events or honour important visitors.
In Southern Italy, the city of Tarento had been famous for its sea-silk
industry : antic writers called tarentinides the extra-light
dresses that were too close-fitting to meet the standards of modesty.
All the same, the looms of Tarento went silent and then, the precious
thread was solely used for embroidery.
is left today
comes principally from the sea-silk workshop of Tarento. It
all amounts to less than one hundred pieces, that might be found in various
museums, most of them Italian. Unfortunately, many of these remaining
pieces are kept in safety and, hence, not displayed. There is :
09-11 attack in
New-York : 2 lions protect the palm tree,
which represents peace.
threaded and woven by hand, embroided with sea-silk itself dyed in
a light hue of sea-shell purple.
Chiara Vigo - 2001
- at the Museum für Naturkunde
in Berlin : a pair of woven sea-silk gloves offered by the bishop of
Tarento to king Frederic William II when the latter visited Napoli in
- at the Field Museum of Natural History
in Chicago : a muff bought in Tarento for the Chicago World Exhibition
in 1893. It was made "fur like" by sewing whole tufts of sea-silk in
layers on canvas, resulting effectively in a likeness of fur, but with
the famous golden shine of sea-silk ;
of greater antiquity, other
remnants might be seen in few European churches or at exhibitions
following various archeological finds. The origins of such pieces
cannot always be precisely asserted but they certainly come from Middle
Mediterranean regions and probably from Southern Italia, Sicilia,
Sardinia. Among such rare items :
- a knitted cap of pure sea-silk, dated
from 14th century. It was found in Saint-Denis (France) where
it is kept, at the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire ;
- a chasuble said of Saint-Yves,
kept in the homonymous basilica (12th century) in Louannec (Brittany-France).
The origin of this religious dress is given as Arabo-Spanish from
Sicilia. But, as it shows the Tree of Life between two gryphons
facing each other which is a traditional pattern of Sardinian
iconography, the cloth might as well have been woven in Sardinia.
In such case, French Benedictine monks who did rebuilt many Sardinian
churches during the 12th century could have brought the cloth