It was amazing to meet the charismatic Chiara Vigo, the last lady in the world who still harvests sea silk, in Hong Kong of all places! Thanks to Para Site gallery which flew her in, I had the chance to watch a documentary on her and feel sea silk (also known as byssus) fibres. This incredibly rare and seemingly weightless silk fibre is harvested from the solidified saliva of deep sea clams in the waters surrounding the Sardinian island of Sant'Antioco.
Her practise can best be described as a mixture of an ancient textile tradition and folklore, for much of her textile making process is accompanied by chants combining Sardinian dialect with Hebrew. Historically, byssus yarn was first mentioned on the Rosetta stone and said to have been found in the tombs of pharaohs.
Using a hand spindle, Chiara demonstrated the spinning of byssus fibre into yarn and how soaking it in a special concoction gave it a golden gleam. All shells and impurities need to be extracted from the fibres which must then be desalinated for weeks..before it can be used. And since so little can be harvested each time, it took her 12 years just to make a tie!
The hand spindle gave me a few ideas...another promising new toy, more possibilities for textile making..
Incredibly (especially when one lives in a highly monetised city such as HK..), byssus yarn is not for sale and Chiara sees herself as carrying on a long line of family tradition tasked with passing on this art for the benefit of humankind. She gave us all a tuff of byssus yarn for keepsake. There is now a crowd-funding drive to raise enough funds for the reopening of her studio/museum!