Historical aspects

Precious textiles have always been traded, used as gifts or served as means of payment. Even in the earliest texts, Hittite cuneiform on clay tablets, Egyptian hieroglyphics on papyrus, Greek and Latin carved into stone and written: We find terms for textiles of all kinds all over the world. However, it is often difficult to assign these terms unambiguously to a specific material; often this is only possible in context.

Since the beginning of book printing in the 15th century, source material has become more extensive. In dictionaries and encyclopedias, inventory and gift lists, trade, goods and custom lists, and auction and sales catalogues, there are references to the use of certain terms and designations and their changes in meaning over the centuries; sea silk is one of them.

Oeconomische Encyclopädie of Johann Krünitz (1728-1796)

… still an important source in 242 volumes (© Ralf Roletschek)

German customs tariff of 1834



Sea silk was well known in ancient times, but it was never called byssus. “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) To this day, not a single classical text is known to associate the term byssus in Latin or βύσσος in Greek with a textile product originating from the sea.

Countless ancient and medieval textile terms have been associated with sea silk. Some were discarded (e.g., cloth of gold), but others can—with some certainty—be confirmed.