News


2015



New publication!

In July 2012 the conference "Texts and Textiles in the Ancient World. Materiality - Representation - Episteme - Metapoetics" took place, organised by the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Basel. The Project Sea-silk was also present. The conference proceedings have now been published, with my article "Byssus und Muschelseide – ein sprachliches Problem mit Konsequenzen". A copy can be ordered: felicitas.notexisting@nodomain.commaeder@muschelseide.notexisting@nodomain.comch.




Sea-silk in ancient textile trade?

How was sea-silk called in ancient times? Information on trade routes, goods and price lists, business and legal texts could tell us more. An insight was given at a Congress on Textile Trade and Distribution - get From the Ancient Near East to the Mediterranean 1000 BC to 400 AD at the University of Kassel (11-14 November 2015).




Why the term byssus in the Bible does not mean sea-silk

There is a big confusion and misunderstanding around the concept of byssus. Aristotle would have been the first to give the name byssus to the fibres of the Pinna, so is said. This false attribution is based on a translation error, or more precisely an accent error going back to the 15th century, a very momentous error - at least for the history of sea-silk.

In the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a Historia animalium. In Book V 15 he described the fan shell Pinna: „Αἱ δὲ πίνναι ὀρθαὶ φύονται ἐκ τοῦ βυσσοῦ ἐν τοῖς ἀμμώδεσι καὶ βορβορώδεσιν”. In the 13th century, Willem van Moerbeke (approx. 1215-1286), a Flemish Dominican priest, translated the book into Latin: „Pinnae rectae nascuntur ex fundo in arenosis…“ („the Pinna-mussels grow upright out of the depth in sandy places…“). This is correct, as ό βυσσός is masculine, with accent on the last sillable – it means depth (van der Feen 1949, Turner and Rosewater 1958). So it is clear, that Aristotle did not use the term byssus for the filaments of the Pinna.
200 years later, in the second half of 15th century, Theodorus Gaza (approx. 1400-1475), a Byzantine humanist living in Italy, made another translation of Aristotle’s History of animals. He made major alterations, as he was convinced, that “a translator of Aristotle must first do his best to restore the text to the form the philosopher had originally given it, and to do so he will have to make substantial changes ad mentem Aristotelis“. Make a better Aristotle, but Gaza was not always lucky in that. He translated: „Pinnae erectae locis arenosis coenosisque ex bysso …“. As in the time of Aristotle Greek was not written with accents, he misunderstood the term “εκ του βυσσου” and translated „ex bysso”: „the Pinna-mussles grow upright from the byssus…“ – ή βύσσος, feminine, with accent on the first sillable, meaning fine linen.

That is how the term byssus for the fibre beard of the Pinna was born. Gaza’s version was much more successful. Printed 1476 in Venice, his book had by the end of the 16th century already more than 40 editions. „Gaza, in fact, had a ‘virtual monopoly’ on the biological works of Aristotle“, and more: „Immediately after its publication Gaza’s translation of De Animalibus achieved an authoritative status, totally eclipsing all previous translations” – although the incorrect translation of this cited phrase was contradicted later by many philologist and zoologist (Beullens and Gotthelf 2007.
Nevertheless, the term byssus entered in zoology and was given later to all other bivalve filaments. So, from that moment on, to the already ambiguous term byssus known from the ancients – cotton? linen? silk? – was added one more: the zoological term byssus for the fibres of bivalves. But „…we must bear in mind, that not one author before Gaza, 1476, has ever used the word byssus in this sense [as fibre beard of the Pinna nobilis] and that all later use goes back to the quoted passage of Gaza” (van der Feen 1949).

The main conclusion is: In antiquity byssus was a fine textile fibre of linen, cotton, or silk. In the 16th century the filament of bivalves like Pinna, blue mussle and others was given the name byssus, in analogy of the ancient byssus. That is the reason, why suddenly textiles called byssus in antique texts became, in popular wisdom and for some authors, sea-silk. With the simple logic: byssus is the name of the fibres of the Pinna, of which was made sea-silk, byssus is found in the Bible and in profane antique literature, so byssus is sea-silk.
Let’s make it clear: Byssus before 1500 has nothing to do with the fibres of a shell, and so nothing with sea-silk. Only from 17th century onward a textile called byssus may – perhaps – be sea-silk.

However: SEA-SILK EXISTED! „From these filaments, textiles can be obtained, they are mentioned in Greek texts from the 2nd cent. AD; .... but they are never called 'byssus'“ (Pelliot 1959). The golden shimmering sea-silk, made of the filaments of the fan shell, was well known as a textile material of highest quality. But it was never called Byssus!





Sea-silk presented on ICOM Costume Conference in Toronto, Canada

Felicitas Maeder was invited to present sea-silk at the annual congress of ICOM Costume from 8 - 13 September 2015 in Toronto.

The International Council of Museums ICOM (International Councel of Museums) is an organisation created in 1946 by and for museum professionals. It is a unique network of more than 35,000 members and museum professionals who represent the global museum community.
A diplomatic forum made up of experts from 136 countries and territories respond to the challenges museums face worldwide. ICOM has a consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
118 National Committees and 30 International Committees are dedicated to various museum specialties.




 
 
An English book on shells tells about sea-silk in Sant'Antioco

Helen Scales, marine biologist at the University of Cambridge, England, was 2014 on research about sea-silk in Sant'Antioco. Now the book has been published: "Spirals in Time - The Secret Life and curious afterlife of seashells" (Bloomsbury 2015). In the chapter "Spinning Shell Stories" (pp 145-171) she tells the story of sea-silk, its processing and the current situation in Sant'Antioco. In August 2015, she had the possibility to present the book - and the chapter about Sant'Antioco in a 5-part series on BBC radio.


Interview with the daughter of Italo Diana

As seen below Claudio Moica has written a series on the history of sea-silk in Sant'Antioco. As a conclusion appeared on April 16, 2015 an interview with Emma Diana, one of two daughters of Italo Diana: A loving portrait with information about the different natural tonalities of byssus - and on failed dyeing tests of sea-silk with purple and natural vegetal dyes.

Moica-2015.jpg (jpg, 98.5 KB)




Piazza Italo Diana in Sant'Antioco

The council of Sant'Antioco decided on 31 March 2015 to dedicate to Italo Diana the square in front of the town hall. Thus, the maestro who has done so much for the knowledge of sea-silk processing, got public honor for the first time.



A week of lectures and research in Vienna

On March 14, 2015 I was invited at the Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Textil-Kunst-Forschung Wien, a Society for textile art research in Vienna. I presented the terminological difficulties around the concepts of byssus as fine linen in antiquity, and the differences with the reality of sea-silk.

On March 17 and 18, 2015, the Catholic Academy of the Diocese of Vienna invited art historians and researchers of the Turin shroud to a conference entitled "Traces of the Holy Face: Sindon, Sudarium, Mandylion, Veronica, Volto Santo". I was invited to present etymological and material facts of linen byssus in ancient times and the differences to what is called today sea-silk (sea program).

Research took place at the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Applied Arts MAK, where I could explore some extremely fine byssus textiles of linen and silk of Bombyx mori.

Veronica-Programm.doc (doc, 1.3 MB)



2014


Another history of sea-silk in Sant’Antioco

Claudio Moica, Sardinian journalist, has written a series about the history of the sea-silk manufacturing in Sant’Antioco in the 20th century. They are accessible on the homepage of the local Gazzetta del Sulcis (http://www.gazzettadelsulcis.it/archivi.asp)

10/7/2014: Si scoprono nuovi maestri della tessitura: il bisso a Sant'Antioco
31/7/2014: La difficile ricostruzione della vita di Italo Diana, il misterioso maestro del bisso di Sant'Antioco
4/9/2014: Felicitas Maeder e la ricerca della verità intorno alla storia del bisso
18/9/2014: Gli insegnamenti del maestro Italo Diana ad Efisia Murroni, l'ultima allieva del bisso
9/10/2014: Italo Diana ricordato dai figli di Jolanda Sitzia: L'allieva e la rievocazione del maestro
23/10/2014: Le sorelle Pes maestre di tessitura e di bisso: La passione di Assuntina e Giuseppina

These articles show another history of sea-silk manufacturing in Sardinia, more sober, less legendary, but real.



A week of research in London and Cambridge


The Natural History Museum in London has some objects in sea-silk. The small woven fragment of sea-silk (inventory no. 17), looked at under the microscope, hides some secrets. The hem on the two sides suggests that it has been taken from a larger fabric. The kind of weaving is not clear. A more detailed analysis has to be made.

The Cairo Geniza Unit of the University of Cambridge library translates and analyzes Hebrew manuscripts from the 10th to the 13th century. Felicitas Maeder has had the opportunity to study some Arab and Hebrew textile terms, which show that the processing of sea-silk probably was known at that time.




Sea-silk and byssus at a Textile Terminology Congress in Copenhagen

The Centre for Textile Research of the University of Copenhagen organized the Congress Textile Terminologies from the Orient to the Mediterranean and Europe 1000 BC to 1000 AD (June 18 to 22, 2014). Felicitas Maeder opened the Congress with the keynote Irritating Byssus - A Term Through the Ages. The main focus lied on the fact the the term byssus before 1500 never meant the fibres of bivalves - or sea-silk - , but a a precious fine textile of linen or cotton. As we know, that sea-silk existed in Antiquity, further research has to show how sea-silk was named in different languages and different times.


Programme Textile Terminology 2014.pdf (pdf, 616.9 KB)



2013

1st International Workshop on sea-silk and purple

The Centre for Textile Research of the University of Copenhagen and the Department of cultural Heritage of the University of Salento organized in Lecce the international workshop TREASURES FROM THE SEA - Sea Shell and purple silk dye (26 to May 28, 2013). Two Sardinian weavers showed the whole process of making sea-silk out of byssus fibres.

Programm WORKSHOP LECCE.pdf (pdf, 1.0 MB)


Tie, not scarf

During a visit of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, a research in the archives showed, that the so-called netted scarf in reality is a tie.




2012


Award for Felicitas Maeder

30th November, 2012, Felicitas Maeder received an honorary doctorate of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Basel.


Sea-silk at a conference of the University of Basel

The Departement of antiquities of the University of Basel organized an international conference Weben und Gewebe in der Antike. Materialität – Repräsentation – Episteme – Metapoetik (30th August to 1st September 2012). Felicitas Maeder participated with a contribution Muschelseide in antiken Mittelmeerkulturen? Byssus als sprachliches Problem.


WebenUndGewebeFlyer.pdf (pdf, 943.0 KB)





Sea-silk scarf in Clermont-Ferrand


In the Musée Bargoin in F-Clermont-Ferrand can presently be admired a sea-silk scarf. Until 31 March 2013, the exhibition METAMORPHOSES shows different extraordinary textiles from all continents.




Sea-silk in a German textile factory around 1800

Now it has been confirmed: Around 1800 sea-silk was processed in the German textile town Monschau, south of Aachen. The evidence revealed a brown cloth pattern of merino wool with golden insertions from sea-silk, exactly as it was described by a contemporary: «... sur la couleur foncée de ces draps, on aurait dit des trainées de paillettes brilliantes» (de Ladoucette 1818).

Still unclear is, whether the so-called Pinna-marina-cloth produced there at the same time was an imitation.




2010


 
 
In memory of

Daniel McKinley

25 October 1924 - 20 March 2010

American biologist and science historian, published 1998 the first comprehensive monograph on the sea-silk: «Pinna and her silken beard: a foray into historical misappropriations», a critical examination of the historical sources, a standard work. He died last year at the age of 86.

His family has given me permission to put online the monograph, one of the great works of his last years, and make it accessible to all interested parties (including corrected table of contents).
Thank you, Dan!

Content_McKinley (jpg, 87.8 KB) McKinley_Sea-Silk_1998 (pdf, 13.4 MB)


Daniel McKinley was born near Dora, Ozark County, Missouri, in 1924. He graduated with B.A. (1955) and M.A. (1957) degrees from the University of Missouri, Columbia. He taught at Bowdoin, Salem, and Lake Erie colleges, and at the State University of New York at Albany, from which he retired in 1989. He died in Albany, New York, in 2010.
Although trained in field zoology, he taught various biology courses, with an undercurrent emphasis upon general biology, botany, and ecology. His long-time teaching interest was the role of human ecology in the environmental movement.
Aside from environmental texts, he published widely on the extinct Carolina parakeet. His later works included the history of natural history in early America, a long term research interest, and included two early accounts of the paddlefish, the matter of the name ‘Tipitiwitchet’ applied to Venus’s Fly-trap, a silk-like fiber produced by the bivalved Pen-Shell that was once woven into a luxury fabric called Byssus, and biographies of James Eights, William Bartram, and Anna Rosina Gambold.
(Paul McKinley, 2011)