Cleopatra and the legend of sea silk

Silk is usually made from the cocoons of silkworms. But there is another, much rarer, kind known as sea silk or byssus.

In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus describes seeing the queen on the river Cydnus (which flows near the ancient city of Tarsus where she first met Mark Antony in 41 BC):

“The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion – cloth-of-gold of tissue –
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature.”

Shakespeare’s historical sources confirm the scene and it’s likely that the cloth-of-gold was byssus, the finest fabric known to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. One of its properties is the way it shines when exposed to the sun. It is also extremely light.

There is a Museum of Byssus on the Sardinian island of Sant’Antioco. A sign on the door says: “Haste doesn’t live here.” The Museum is the studio of Chiara Vigo who, according to a recent BBC News report, is thought to be the only person left alive who still harvests byssus, spins it and makes it shine like gold (apparently by treating it with lemon juice and spices).

The raw material is the saliva of a large clam, known in Latin as Pinna nobilis, the pen shell. The byssus fibre of this protected species is composed of proteins from the collagen group. The cured fibre cannot be dissolved in water, nor by enzymes or organic solvents. But it is flammable.

The Greek text of the Rosetta Stone (196 BCE) says that Ptolemy V (who made a political marriage with a Greek princess also named Cleopatra) – after cruelly suppressing a revolt – reduced taxes on priests “in order to create peace in Egypt”, including a tax on byssus cloth, mistakenly referred to as “fine linen”.

The cloth produced from byssus is extremely light and warm. It is said that a pair of women’s gloves made from the fabric could fit into half a walnut shell and a pair of stockings into a snuffbox.

ByssusAccording to Chiara Vigo, who learnt the technique from her grandmother, after collecting byssus the next step is to leave the raw material to soak in a mixture of eight seaweeds. Once dry, it is carded (disentangled) before twisting the filaments together to form a gilded thread. The yarn is spun quite a few times in order to make it strong enough to be used on a loom and woven into cloth.

Byssus is believed to bring good fortune. That didn’t help Cleopatra, who died not by being bitten by an asp but, according to the latest theory, by drinking hemlock mixed with wolfsbane and opium. She was discovered arrayed on a golden couch wearing her most beautiful garments.

The only known likeness of Cleopatra is believed to be a small granite statue of unknown origin held by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. No one knows if it is really her but, as with byssus, the legend persists.

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