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Sea silk


Sea silk is an extremely fine, rare, and valuable fabric that is made from the long silky filaments or byssus secreted by a gland in the foot of pen shells (in particular Pinna nobilis). The byssus is used by the clam to attach itself to the sea bed.

Sea silk was produced in the Mediterranean region from the large marine 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. These byssus or filaments (which can be up to 6 cm long) are spun and, when treated with lemon 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 made from the fabric could fit into half a walnut shell and a pair of stockings in a snuffbox.In addition, Pinna nobilis is also sometimes gathered for its flesh (as food) and occasionally has pearls of fair quality.

The Greek text of the (196 BCE) Rosetta Stone records that Ptolemy V reduced taxes on priests, including one paid in byssus cloth. This is thought to be fine linen cloth, not sea silk. In Ancient Egyptian burial customs, byssus was used to wrap mummies; this was also linen and not sea silk.

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



  • Bretschneider, Emil. 1871. On the Knowledge Possessed by the Ancient Chinese of the Arabs and Arabian Colonies and Other Western Countries. Trubner.
  • Hill, John E. (2009) Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, 1st to 2nd Centuries CE. John E. Hill. BookSurge, Charleston, South Carolina. . See Section 12 plus "Appendix B - Sea Silk".
  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West. A draft annotated translation of the 3rd century Weilüe – see Section 12 of the text and Appendix D.
  • Laufer, Berthold. 1915. "The Story of the Pinna and the Syrian Lamb", The Journal of American Folk-lore 28.108:103-128.
  • McKinley, Daniel L. 1988. "Pinna and Her Silken Beard: A Foray Into Historical Misappropriations". Ars Textrina: A Journal of Textiles and Costumes, Vol. Twenty-nine, June, 1998, Winnipeg, Canada, pp. 9–223.
  • Maeder, Felicitas 2002. "The project Sea-silk – Rediscovering an Ancient Textile Material." Archaeological Textiles Newsletter, Number 35, Autumn 2002, pp. 8–11.
  • Maeder, Felicitas, Hänggi, Ambros and Wunderlin, Dominik, Eds. 2004. Bisso marino: Fili d’oro dal fondo del mare – Muschelseide: Goldene Fäden vom Meeresgrund. Naturhistoriches Museum and Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Switzerland. (In Italian and German).
  • Maeder, Felicitas. (2014). "Irritating Byssus – Etymological problems, material facts and the impact of mass media." Paper presntented at: Textile Terminologies from the Orient to the Mediterranean and Europe 1000 BC – AD 1000. Copenhagen, 18–22 June 2014, pp. 1–17.
  • Scales, Helen. 2015. Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells. Bloomsbury Sigma.
  • Schafer, Edward H. 1967. The Vermillion Bird: T'ang Images of the South. University of California Press.
  • Turner, Ruth D. and Rosewater, Joseph 1958. "The Family Pinnidae in the Western Atlantic" Johnsonia, Vol. 3 No. 38, June 28, 1958, pp. 285–326.
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