Sea silk
Sea silk is an extremely fine, rare and valuable fabric
A textile or cloth is a flexible woven material consisting of a network of natural or artificial fibres often referred to as thread or yarn. Yarn is produced by spinning raw fibres of wool, flax, cotton, or other material to produce long strands...

 produced from the long silky filaments or byssus
Byssus means both a silky filament by which certain molluscs attach themselves to hard surfaces, and a rare fabric, also called sea silk and its fibre source.-Word:...

 secreted by a gland in the foot of several bivalve molluscs (particularly Pinna nobilis
Pinna nobilis
Pinna nobilis, common name the "noble pen shell" is a species of pen shell, a large marine bivalve mollusc in the family Pinnidae, the 'pen shells'....

L.) by which they attach themselves to the sea bed.

Sea silk was produced in the Mediterranean region from the large bivalve mollusc, 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
Intertidal zone
The intertidal zone is the area that is above water at low tide and under water at high tide . This area can include many different types of habitats, with many types of animals like starfish, sea urchins, and some species of coral...

. These byssus or filaments (which can be up to 6 cm long) are then spun and, when treated with lemon
The lemon is both a small evergreen tree native to Asia, and the tree's ellipsoidal yellow fruit. The fruit is used for culinary and non-culinary purposes throughout the world – primarily for its juice, though the pulp and rind are also used, mainly in cooking and baking...

 juice, turn a 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 clothes moths, the larvae of which will eat it. It was said that a pair of women's gloves could fit into half a walnut
Juglans is a plant genus of the family Juglandaceae, the seeds of which are known as walnuts. They are deciduous trees, 10–40 meters tall , with pinnate leaves 200–900 millimetres long , with 5–25 leaflets; the shoots have chambered pith, a character shared with the wingnuts , but not the hickories...

 shell and a pair of stockings in a snuffbox. The mollusc is also sought for its flesh and occasionally has pearls of fair quality.


Sea silk is identified with byssus
Byssus means both a silky filament by which certain molluscs attach themselves to hard surfaces, and a rare fabric, also called sea silk and its fibre source.-Word:...

 cloth, which was a rare white fabric in the ancient Mediterranean, but scholars disagree over this connection.


The Greek text of the (196 BCE) Rosetta Stone
Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian granodiorite stele inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The decree appears in three scripts: the upper text is Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the middle portion Demotic script, and the lowest Ancient Greek...

 records that Ptolemy V reduced taxes on priests, including one paid in byssus cloth, usually translated as "fine linen cloth". In Ancient Egyptian burial customs, byssus cloth (actually linen) was used to wrap mummies
A mummy is a body, human or animal, whose skin and organs have been preserved by either intentional or incidental exposure to chemicals, extreme coldness , very low humidity, or lack of air when bodies are submerged in bogs, so that the recovered body will not decay further if kept in cool and dry...



The sophist author Alciphron
Alciphron was an ancient Greek sophist, and the most eminent among the Greek epistolographers. Regarding his life or the age in which he lived we possess no direct information whatsoever.-Works:...

 first records "sea wool" in his (ca. 2nd century CE) "Galenus to Cryton" letter.

The early Christian Tertullian
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicised as Tertullian , was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. He is the first Christian author to produce an extensive corpus of Latin Christian literature. He also was a notable early Christian apologist and...

 (ca. 160-220 CE) mentions it justifying his wearing a pallium
The pallium is an ecclesiastical vestment in the Roman Catholic Church, originally peculiar to the Pope, but for many centuries bestowed by him on metropolitans and primates as a symbol of the jurisdiction delegated to them by the Holy See. In that context it has always remained unambiguously...

 instead of a toga
The toga, a distinctive garment of Ancient Rome, was a cloth of perhaps 20 ft in length which was wrapped around the body and was generally worn over a tunic. The toga was made of wool, and the tunic under it often was made of linen. After the 2nd century BC, the toga was a garment worn...

Nor was it enough to comb and to sow the materials for a tunic. 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
Golden Fleece
In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece is the fleece of the gold-haired winged ram, which can be procured in Colchis. It figures in the tale of Jason and his band of Argonauts, who set out on a quest by order of King Pelias for the fleece in order to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus...

 sought by Jason and the Argonauts
Jason was a late ancient Greek mythological hero from the late 10th Century BC, famous as the leader of the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. He was the son of Aeson, the rightful king of Iolcus...

 but scholars refute this hypothesis.

Roman Empire

Several sources mention lana pinna "pinna wool". Emperor Diocletian
Diocletian |latinized]] upon his accession to Diocletian . c. 22 December 244  – 3 December 311), was a Roman Emperor from 284 to 305....

's (301 CE) Edict on Maximum Prices
Edict on Maximum Prices
The Edict on Maximum Prices was issued in 301 by Roman Emperor Diocletian....

lists it as a valuable textile.

The Byzantine historian Procopius
Procopius of Caesarea was a prominent Byzantine scholar from Palestine. Accompanying the general Belisarius in the wars of the Emperor Justinian I, he became the principal historian of the 6th century, writing the Wars of Justinian, the Buildings of Justinian and the celebrated Secret History...

's (ca. 550 CE) Persian War, "stated that the five hereditary satrap
Satrap was the name given to the governors of the provinces of the ancient Median and Achaemenid Empires and in several of their successors, such as the Sassanid Empire and the Hellenistic empires....

s (governors) of Armenia who received their insignia from the Roman Emperor were given chlamys
The chlamys was an ancient Greek piece of clothing, a type of cloak....

 (or cloaks) made from lana pinna. Apparently only the ruling classes were allowed to wear these chlamys."


The Arabic name for "sea silk" is ṣūf al-baḥr "sea wool". The 9th-century Persian geographer Estakhri
Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Farisi al Istakhri was a medieval Persian geographer in the 10th century.-Career:...

 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 golden color. This wool is very rare and highly esteemed, and nothing of it is allowed to waste.

Two 13th-century authors, Ibn al-Baitar and Zakariya al-Qazwini
Zakariya al-Qazwini
Abu Yahya Zakariya' ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini , was a Persian physician, astronomer, geographer and proto-science fiction writer....

, repeat this "sea wool" story.


Beginning in the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 CE), Chinese histories document importing sea silk. Chinese language
Chinese language
The Chinese language is a language or language family consisting of varieties which are mutually intelligible to varying degrees. Originally the indigenous languages spoken by the Han Chinese in China, it forms one of the branches of Sino-Tibetan family of languages...

 names include "cloth from the west of the sea" and "mermaid silk".

The (3rd century CE) Weilüe
The Weilüe written by Yu Huan between CE 239, the end of Emperor Ming’s reign, and 265 CE, the end of the Cao Wei . Although not an "official historian," Yu Huan has always been held in high regard amongst Chinese scholars....

"Brief Account of the Wei", which was an unofficial history of the Cao Wei
Cao Wei
Cao Wei was one of the states that competed for control of China during the Three Kingdoms period. With the capital at Luoyang, the state was established by Cao Pi in 220, based upon the foundations that his father Cao Cao laid...

 empire (220-265 CE), records haixi 海西 "West of the Sea" cloth made from shuiyang 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') cloth. 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 Hanshu "Book of the Eastern Han" expresses doubt about "water sheep" in the "Products of Daqin
Daqin is the ancient Chinese name for the Roman Empire and, depending on context, the Near East, especially Syria. It literally means "Great Qin", Qin being the name of the founding dynasty of the Chinese Empire...

 (the 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 Fan Ye
Fan Ye
Fan Ye |Liu Xuan]] and Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina for the longevity of their involvement in the sport.Fan Ye is best known for her work on the balance beam. Her biggest accomplishment in gymnastics is winning the 2003 World Balance Beam Title...

 (398-445 CE), author of the Hou Hanshu, notes this section's information comes from the report that General Ban Yong
Ban Yong
Ban Yong ) was the youngest son of the famous Chinese General, Ban Chao , and the nephew of the illustrious historian, Ban Gu who compiled the Hanshu, the dynastic history of the Former Han dynasty.- Ban Yong's family :...

 班勇 (son of General Ban Chao
Ban Chao
Ban Chao , courtesy name Zhongsheng , was born in Xianyang, Shaanxi, and the younger brother of the famous historian, Ban Gu who, with his father Ban Biao, and sister, Ban Zhao, wrote the famous Hanshu, or 'History of the Former Han Dynasty'....

 班超, 32-102 CE) presented to the Emperor in 125. Both Bans administered the Western Regions
Western Regions
The Western Regions or Xiyu was a historical name specified in the Chinese chronicles between the 3rd century BC to 8th century AD that referred to the regions west of Jade Gate, most often Central Asia or sometimes more specifically the easternmost portion of it The Western Regions or Xiyu was a...

 on the Silk Road
Silk Road
The Silk Road or Silk Route refers to a historical network of interlinking trade routes across the Afro-Eurasian landmass that connected East, South, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean and European world, as well as parts of North and East Africa...


The (945 CE) Tang shu "Book of Tang" mentioned Haixi cloth from Folin 佛菻 "Syria", which Emil Bretschneider
Emil Bretschneider
Emil Bretschneider was a Russian sinologist of Baltic German descent and a correspondent member of Académie française. He graduated from the medical school of University of Dorpat in Dorpat Estonia and was first posted as a physician by the Russian legation to Tehran...

 first identified as sea silk from Greece. "There is also a stuff woven from the hair of sea-sheep, and called hai si pu (stuff from the western sea)". He notes, "This is, perhaps, the Byssus, 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 Pinna squamosa)."

The (early 6th century CE) Shuyiji 遹異記 "Records of Strange Things" mentions silk woven by Jiaoren 蛟人 jiao
Jiaolong or jiao is a polysemous aquatic dragon in Chinese mythology. Edward H. Schafer describes the jiao.Spiritually akin to the crocodile, and perhaps originally the same reptile, was a mysterious creature capable of many forms called the chiao . Most often it was regarded as a kind of lung – a...

-dragon people", which Edward H. Schafer
Edward H. Schafer
Edward Hetzel Schafer, was a leading historian of Tang Dynasty China. He wrote ground-breaking works such as The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A study of Tang exotics and The Vermilion Bird: T'ang images of the South. Schafer wrote his Ph.D...

 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 蛟綃 "mermaid silk" or jiaonujuan 蛟女絹" mermaid women's silk".


Unfortunately, in recent years, Pinna nobilis has become threatened with extinction, partly due to overfishing, the decline in seagrass
Seagrasses are flowering plants from one of four plant families , all in the order Alismatales , which grow in marine, fully saline environments.-Ecology:...

 fields, and 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
Sant'Antioco is the name of both an island and a municipality in southwestern Sardinia, in the Province of Carbonia-Iglesias, in Sulcis zone. With a population of 11,730, the municipality of Sant'Antioco it is the island's largest community...

 in Sardinia
Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea . It is an autonomous region of Italy, and the nearest land masses are the French island of Corsica, the Italian Peninsula, Sicily, Tunisia and the Spanish Balearic Islands.The name Sardinia is from the pre-Roman noun *sard[],...


The earliest usage of the English name sea silk remains uncertain, but the Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

defines sea-silkworm as "a bivalve mollusc of the genus Pinna."

External links



  • Sticky When Wet, Science News
    Science News
    Science News is an American bi-weekly magazine devoted to short articles about new scientific and technical developments, typically gleaned from recent scientific and technical journals. Science News has been published since 1922 by Society for Science & the Public, a non-profit organization...

  • Wet Wonder Glue, Waite Research Lab
  • The PROJECT SEA-SILK (Bisso marino), Natural History Museum of Basel
    Natural History Museum of Basel
    With a heritage dating back over 300 years, the Natural History Museum of Basel in Basel, Switzerland, houses wide-ranging collections primarily focused on the fields of zoology, entomology, mineralogy, anthropology, osteology and paleontology...

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