Project Sea-silk

Sea-silk is the cleaned, combed beard of the noble pen shell (Pinna nobilis L.), used as a textile fibre
Sea-silk is the cleaned, combed beard of the noble pen shell (Pinna nobilis L.), used as a textile fibre
Sea-silk has everything that fascinates and excites imagination: it shines like gold in the sun, it comes from the sea, is rare and precious - and its history dates back to antiquity: Just the right topic for myths and legends. Each period cultivates its own legend and creates new ones. What was sea-silk? What is sea-silk?

In the history of textiles, sea-silk represents only a tiny section. Until recently there was very little research, and the knowledge of the production and processing of sea-silk as a cultural heritage was threatened with extinction.


Until the mid-20th century Taranto in Apulia and Sardinia were centres of sea-silk processing. Both places are again important today, where the focus lies on raising awareness of the artisanal knowledge and to communicate it to the next generations - although new lines of business will not arise, as the noble pen shell is protected.

In 1998, the American biologist and science historian Daniel McKinley published the first comprehensive monograph Pinna and her silken beard: a foray into historical misappropriations, a critical historical analysis with an extensive bibliography. This study is now considered a standard work.


 
 

In the same year, and independently, the project Sea-silk started in Switzerland, at the Natural History Museum Basel. Its goals are

  1. Compiling an inventory of all objects in sea-silk still existing,
  2. Tracing the history of this almost forgotten textile material, its production and processing,
  3. Documentation of the knowledge and the remains of this cultural heritage of the Mediterranean.


The catalogue of the 2004 exhibition in Basel:  Muschelseide - Goldene Fäden vom Meeresgrund / Bisso marino - Fili d'oro dal fondo del mare. Maeder F., A. Hänggi & D. Wunderlin (eds.) Milano: 5 Continents Editions, 2004, 128 p. CHF 39.-/€ 25.-.   Where to get it:  Naturhistorisches Museum Basel: nmb@bs.ch
The catalogue of the 2004 exhibition in Basel:
Muschelseide - Goldene Fäden vom Meeresgrund / Bisso marino - Fili d'oro dal fondo del mare. Maeder F., A. Hänggi & D. Wunderlin (eds.) Milano: 5 Continents Editions, 2004, 128 p. CHF 39.-/€ 25.-.

Where to get it: 
Naturhistorisches Museum Basel: nmb@bs.ch
The world's first thematic exhibition took place in 2004 at the Natural History Museum Basel: «Muschelseide – Goldene Fäden vom Meeresgrund / Bisso marino - Fili d'oro dal fondo del mare», in cooperation with the European department of the Museum der Kulturen Basel. Over 20 textile items made from sea-silk from both European and U.S. collections where shown. The exhibition catalogue is the first illustrated monograph and - like all the texts of the exhibition - completely bilingual, in German and Italian.
As a traveling exhibition it was shown in 2006 in Taranto and Lecce (Apulia), and in 2008/2009, in an extended form, in the Villa Ciani in Lugano, in collaboration with the Museo Cantonale di Storia naturale.

Today the inventory includes more than 60 objects. The Project Sea-silk was also presented at several textile conferences and public events in Switzerland and abroad. Resulting papers were published in German, English, French and Italian. Thus the level of attention of textile experts and institutions is increasing.

With the Internet, entirely new methods of research for many books and other sources of the period from the 16th to 19th century - most important for the topic - are possible and for the first time widely available. From a constantly growing library of data, we are now able to search for keywords and phrases. This site is therefore a work in progress - the content will be updated regularly with the latest findings. There remains much to be done.

Felicitas Maeder, Project Sea-silk
Natural History Museum, Augustinergasse 2, CH-4001 Basel, Switzerland

Mail: felicitas.maeder(at)muschelseide.ch