Weaving from the Sea

Italian weaver Chiari Vigo is one of the last of her kind. Like her maternal grandmother before her, Vigo processes and weaves with byssus, a filament secreted from the foot from the endangered noble pen shell and several other bivalve mollusks. A native of Sant’Antioco, Sardinia, Vigo dives local waters herself to collect the threads, using a technique she’s developed that doesn’t harm the organism. 

From there she processes the threads using the ancient methods taught to her by her grandmother. Byssus, also known as sea silk, has been used for weaving and needlework for thousands of years. Almost from the very beginning it was considered a rare luxury usually only available to royalty or high priests. 

Today the mollusk that produces the byssus threads is endangered, and the works woven by Vigo are estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and are found in museums around the world. Given this, some might find it strange that Vigo chooses not to make any money off her weavings. According to Vigo, she’s taken the “Sea Oath” which states that byssus is for everyone and therefore cannot be used for personal gain. Rather than sell these priceless works, instead she chooses to live off of donations.

For those interested in seeing how byssus is processed, this video shows Vigo as she combs, spins, and weaves the delicate thread at just after the thirty-minute mark. Just be aware both the video and website are in Italian. 

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