Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Pinna For Your Thoughts

Have been fascinated in recent weeks with a near-extinct textile known as "sea silk". Pre-industrial, probably even pre-Christian, it derives from filaments extruded by the mollusk Pinna nobilis to attach itself to a mooring. (Known as the "byssus," this clump of filaments is known to anyone who has bearded mussels prior to making moules mariniere).

Imagine it. Gathering the shells from their rocky coastal habitat (Taranto, in southern Italy, remains the sole locality to preserve the custom, thanks to weaver Chiara Vigo). Plucking out the bronzed strands. Untangling them, washing them, bleaching them (alternately in urine or lemon juice, depending on who's telling the story), spinning them, and then weaving them. The resulting garment was said to be ultra-lightweight and compactable, a cloak able to pack down into a walnut shell--in this quality akin to the also legendary and now quite illegal shahtoosh shawls of Asia.

Some say the fabled Golden Fleece of the Argonauts was made of sea silk. Others say that the fiber was used to make gloves in the early part of this century. While the fleece is certainly lost to history, a pair of fine vintage sea-silk gloves remains a tantalizing possibility.

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