The Restless Viking: The Magical Byssus Weaver – Chiara Vigo

The following article was written by Martha Hayden and originally published on The Restless Viking website on March 28, 2023.

Byssus, a thread made from mollusks’ saliva, is extremely rare and has ancient references! This “Sea Silk” had been named on the Rosetta stone and was reported to have been found in pharaohs’ tombs. Many have believed Byssus had adorned Moses’ altar. Byssus is mentioned 45 times in the Old Testament.

Today there’s only one known person who painstakingly creates this thread and weaves, crochets or embroiders it into masterpieces; Chiara Vigo.(KEE ar a VEE go) Her maternal grandmother had taught Chiara and she has been giving her daughter lessons. Chiara lives on a small island, Sant’ Antioco, in the Mediterranean Sea. This 45 square-mile isle sits at the southwest corner of Sardinia, a larger island west of Rome. I have wanted to meet Chiara and observe her craft! Join my husband, Chuck, and I as we trek to the tiny island of Sant’ Antioco to locate this magical woman.

Chiara held her crocheted Byssus which captured the sun revealing a golden hue. Photo Credit: The British Broadcasting Company

Planning Our Journey

Chuck and I were staying in the traditional village of Nurachi, Sardina at Casa Mediterranea, a cultural workshop / bed and breakfast, owned by our friends Ivo and Rita. Nurachi sits along the western side in the center of the island. With a rented car, we could reach any destination in less than two hours. (Sardinia is about the size of the state of Maryland.)

Sant’ Antioco Island sits at the southwest corner of Sardinia.

Hearing of our plans, Ivo livened, “Chiara collects the byssus herself at a secret location.” He paused as if to give us warning, “She does enjoy the theatrics of her craft.” Rita nodded. “Yes.” Rita clarified, “She sings.” Our friends’ confirmation of Chiara’s routine made me even more eager to witness this unique, magical art. I had researched Chiara Vigo three years ago and felt elated at the chance to meet this magical woman!

“Byssus is never to be sold, but it is given as a gift.” I read to Chuck as we drove. “If someone tries to earn money from selling Byssus, they will be cursed with bad luck.”

Popes have had vestments made with Byssus. Photo Credit: Freebeekeeper

Sant’ Antioco Island

Driving around these islands with narrow two-way streets was enjoyable for Chuck. “Everybody works together here. You make eye contact, make room for each other and move along.” From the passenger seat a claustrophobic feeling crept in from time to time as I observed oncoming traffic moving toward us around cars which were parallel parked on both sides.

Chiara Vigo’s studio is located along a partially paved cobble stone street: Via Regina Margherita 168. Her building’s second floor is painted yellow with a balcony.

“It says that her hours are 10:00-12:20 and then 5:00 – 8:00.” As we found a parking space within walking distance, we calculated that we’d arrive about 12:30. “Well,” I offered alternatives as we neared her studio. “We could go to the shore and look for shells. Then we could eat a late lunch until she opens back up at 5:00.”

Entering Chiara’s Studio

We could see a few people through the window. “It looks like she’s open.” I searched the door looking for a sign with the hours and saw a couple immerging from Chiara’s studio. “Oh, it’s open, I guess.” I led us over the threshold. A woman with a tight bun peered over her reading glasses and spoke harshly in Italian. “I think she’s saying she’s closed.” Chuck commented as he opened “Google Translate” on his phone. “Are you closed?” Chuck spoke into his device. He tried again, but it wasn’t working. Chuck was preparing to respectfully retreat back outside.

“Chiara?” I asked. She nodded. “Oh, It’s a pleasure to meet you!” I put my hand over my heart. Her demeanor softened. “We can come back later.” I offered in English. She laughed and nodded. Chiara led us to a small desk with a basket containing fluffy brown wool-looking material. She put a ball into Chuck’s hand. “Wow! I can’t even feel it.” Chiara laughed again and put a clump on my palm. The mass was undetectable. “This is amazing!” I commented and leaned toward Chuck. “I think she’s going to show us how she makes the thread.” I widened my eyes with eagerness!

The ball of dried mollusk saliva was delicately undetectable.

Spinning Byssus

Chiara positioned herself comfortably in front of her loom and began pulling on the brown wool-like substance. She hooked the end to the top of the spindle. Then she started to sing. The lilting lyrics reminded me of a nursery rhyme.

Chiara attached the woolish fluff to a hook on the top of the spindle.
Chiara worked the fluff into a thread by rolling the spindle along the side of her leg with her hand.
As she sang and rolled the spindle, the thread lengthened. Then, she doubled the thin thread and spun both together for strength.

Chiara held the length up to us, showing how stiff and strong the thread had become.
It didn’t stretch at all.

Soaking In Lemon Juice and Spices

Chiara led us back to the little desk where she submerged the newly spun thread into a vase of lemon juice, algea and secret spices. She held the opening to her mouth and echoed guttural sounds into the jar. Chiara’s eyes stared straight ahead as if she was in a trance. ‘Oh. This must have been what Ivo and Rita had been talking about.’ I smiled to myself, then to Chuck.

Chiara brought the string over her lips while making sounds that were no longer singing, but rather deep, penetrating, animalistic calls.

The Golden Sheen

The brown thread was now surprisingly stretchy and when under the light, a golden hue would glisten. “Remarkable!” I commented. It really was like magic! I slipped a twenty Euro bill onto her desk, “Grazie!” I thanked her with a smile. I was touched that she’d remained open just for us. I didn’t want us to overstay our welcome.

The brown thread shown golden under the light.

Chuck had noticed a Menorah, a Jewish candle holder used during the holiday, Hanukkah. “You’re Jewish?” He asked Chiara. “Si.” she nodded, “My family.” she spoke in English and gestured to her woven family crest hung on the wall. We shared a grin. “Grazie.” Chuck said and handed her a twenty Euro bill. We turned toward the door. “Arrivederci.” We bid her good bye.

“Aye.” She commanded our attention. We turned back with question in our eyes. She gently took my hand and then tied the golden thread to my wrist. The honor of this gift struck me speechless. Chiara and I shared a warm gaze and cheerful smile. In a daze I finally muttered, “Belle” (Beautiful) “Grazie!” (Thank You)

The Byssus thread stays in a place of honor on my wrist!

Collecting Byssus

Accompanied by the Italian Coast Guard each spring, Chiara dives with a small knife to collect Byssus from a protected area of the Mediterranean waters. 300 to 400 dives will result in 200g of Byssus. The Pina Nobilis mollusks use their saliva to attach themselves to rocks at the bottom of the sea.

Byssus has been collected from the Pinna Nobilis since ancient times. This mollusk, known as “noble pen shell” or “fan mussel,” is the largest bivalve known in the Mediterranean Sea. This species averages from 30-50 cm long, but can reach 120 cm. They live for 20 years.

Chiara then rinses and soaks the Byssus in fresh water for 25 days changing the water every three hours. Once dried, she cards the fibers to remove any debris. Next, she uses tweezers to pick each strand apart. Byssus is 1/3 the thickness of a human hair, so this process is tedious and done under a lit magnifying glass.

Chiara Vigo

Following her father’s death at eight years old, Chiara had been mainly raised by her maternal grandmother while her mother was away from home working as an obstetrician. This Byssus tradition has been passed along the women of the family for centuries. Chiara had explained to an interviewer, “The most important thread, for my family, was the thread of their history, their tradition.”

Chiara Vigo points out her family’s crest woven with Byssus displaying her Jewish heritage.

In Max Paradiso’s article Chiara had reported that “Princess Berenice, great-granddaughter of the Biblical Herod, Herod the Great, during the second half of the First Century” had brought the art of Byssus to the island of Sant’ Antioco. That’s 24 generations of women keeping this tradition. According to Paradiso a few women in the ‘heel’ area of Italy still weave Byssus, but none of them get the sheen of gold as Chiara Vigo can.

Chiara shared with a BBC reporter, “My grandmother wove in me a tapestry that was impossible to unwind. Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to the sea, just as those who have come before me.”

Journalist, Max Paradiso, had observed a steady stream of visitors had stopped at Chiara studio throughout the day. “I weave for the poor, outcasts and people in need.” Chiara later explained. Byssus is believed to bring good fortune and fertility.

Chiara and her retired coal-miner husband live off his pension. She never sells the Byssus products that she has painstakingly created, rather she receives occasional donations.

Their daughter, Maddalena, isn’t so sure she’s ready to assume this responsibility. “I’m desperately torn. My life is mine.” Maddalena had told a BBC reporter from her home in Dublin in 2017. I haven’t been able to find any other information about how Maddalena is feeling in 2023. So meeting Chiara became even more special not knowing the future of Byssus production.

“Byssus is the soul of the sea. It is sacred.” Chiara had told Paradiso. She prays twice daily, at dawn and at dusk, along a secluded cove. Her mixture of Hebrew and Sardo, the Sardinian language, drifts out over the Mediterranean Sea.

Chuck and Martha Hayden, aka The Viking and Poppins, enjoy going on adventures off the beaten path. They also like to share their explorations with others. The Viking is a retired expedition leader while Poppins is a retired teacher. The two offer independent views of their journeys showcasing places, people, and cultures as they explore the world. Visit and follow them on their website and social media accounts. Website | Facebook | Instagram |YouTube

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