Sea Silk

in Silk

Sea silk is identified with byssus 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 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 was used to wrap mummies.


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

The early Christian Tertullian (ca. 160-220 CE) mentions it justifying his wearing a pallium instead of a toga.

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 sought by Jason and the Argonauts but scholars refute this hypothesis.

Roman Empire

Several sources mention lana pinna "pinna wool". Emperor Diocletian's (301 CE) Edict on Maximum Prices lists it as a valuable textile.

The Byzantine historian Procopius's (ca. 550 CE) Persian War, "stated that the five hereditary satraps (governors) of Armenia who received their insignia from the Roman Emperor were given chlamys (or cloaks) made from lana pinna. Apparently only the ruling classes were allowed to wear these chlamys."


The Arabic name for "sea silk" is al-bar "sea wool". The 9th-century Persian geographer Estakhri 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, repeat this "sea wool" story.


Beginning in the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 CE), Chinese histories document importing sea silk from the Roman Empire. Chinese language names include "cloth from the west of the sea" and "mermaid silk".

The (3rd century CE) Weile "Brief Account of the Wei", which was an unofficial history of the Cao Wei empire (220-265 CE), records haixi "West of the Sea" cloth made from shuiyang "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 (ast 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 (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 (398-445 CE), author of the Hou Hanshu, notes this section's information comes from the report that General Ban Yong (son of General Ban Chao , 32-102 CE) presented to the Emperor in 125. Both Bans administered the Western Regions on the Silk Road.

The (945 CE) Tang shu "Book of Tang" mentioned Haixi cloth from Folin "Syria", which Emil Bretschneider 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 "Records of Strange Things" mentions silk woven by Jiaoren jiao-dragon people", which Edward H. Schafer identifies as sea silk.

In the midst of the South Sea are the houses of the ku 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 "mermaid silk" or jiaonujuan " mermaid women's silk".


The image of Jesus at Manoppello in Italy, believed by some to be the original Veil of Veronica, is painted on a piece of byssus cloth. The Italian names for "sea silk" are bisso "byssus", lana pesce "fish wool" or lana penna "pinna wool".

Unfortunately, in recent years, Pinna nobilis has become threatened with extinction, partly due to overfishing and, partly, due to the decline in seagrass 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 in Sardinia.

The earliest usage of the English name sea silk remains uncertain, but the Oxford English Dictionary defines sea-silkworm as "a bivalve mollusc of the genus Pinna."


^ Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged) 1976. G. & C. Merriam Co., p. 307.

^ Oxford English Dictionary (1971), under Byssus.

^ Translation of the Greek section of the Rosetta Stone.

^ Book I, Alciphron, Literally and Completely Translated

^ Tr. Laufer 1915:109.

^ Verrill, A. Hyatt (1950), Shell Collector Handbook, New York: Putnam, p. 77

^ Barber, Elizabeth J. W. (1991), Prehistoric textiles: the development of cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with special reference to the Aegean, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press

^ McKinley, Daniel (1999), inna And Her Silken Beard: A Foray Into Historical Misappropriations, Ars Textrina 29, pp. 9-29

^ Maeder 2002, p. 10.

^ Turner and Rosewater 1958, p. 294.

^ Tr. Laufer 1915:111.

^ In modern Standard Mandarin usage, Haixi denotes "western; foreign" names such as Haixi Jurchens and Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

^ Tr. Hill 2004

^ Tr. Hill 2003.

^ Tr. Bretschneider 1871, p. 24

^ Tr. Schafer 1967:220-1.

^ Maeder, Hnggi, and Wunderlin 2004, pp. 68-71.

^ OED2, under Sea, n. 23 (d).


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. ISBN 978-1-4392-2134-1. 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 Weile 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, Hnggi, Ambros and Wunderlin, Dominik, Eds. 2004. Bisso marino: Fili dro dal fondo del mare Muschelseide: Goldene Fden vom Meeresgrund. Naturhistoriches Museum and Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Switzerland. (In Italian and German).

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.

External links


Byssus threads from mussel, Virtue School Project

Byssus, Aquatext

History of Sea Byssus cloth, Designboom

How to Spin a Byssus Thread, Designboom


Look up byssus in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

Byssus, Webster's

byssus, American Heritage Dictionary

byssus, WorldReference


Sticky When Wet, Science News

Wet Wonder Glue, Waite Research Lab

The PROJECT SEA-SILK (Bisso marino), Natural History Museum of Basel




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This article was published on 2010/10/09