The Sea silk project of the Natural History Museum in Basel started in 1998 with the search for objects and their inventory. This proved to be more difficult than expected, as practically all objects are not – as initially thought – kept in textile or folklore collections, but in natural history museums. Nevertheless, in 2004, at the world’s first exhibition devoted exclusively to the subject of sea silk in Basel, more than 20 objects from Europe and the USA were on display. In the meantime, the inventory contains almost 100 objects.
By tracing these objects, we are constantly learning more about their history. What is the history of today’s object owners or their institution? How did the object come into the collection? Who was its previous owner? How did it come into their hands? Where was it produced? In this way, we gradually gain access to the places of production and the conditions of manufacture, the significance of trade and gift exchange, the role of Grand Tour, travel literature, diaries, and we learn about knowledge production and knowledge exchange among elites in the church and the nobility interested in history and nature, across national borders, sometimes over vast distances. Increasingly, correspondence from well-known people from the 18th to 20th centuries is being edited and made accessible online. I hope to learn more about the history of the inventoried objects with these new resources – and perhaps to find more objects.
With many textiles made from sea silk, the question arises whether these were worn garments or mere prestige objects. Have objects made from sea silk primarily been souvenirs and collectors’ items for the curiosity cabinet at home? Or were they – simply more expensive – accessories? Some objects show clear signs of use, for example the stockings from the State Natural History Museum Braunschweig (MS-inventory 47) or the fragment from the Natural History Museum London (MS-inventory 17). The cap from Monaco (MS-inventory 4) also has scraped edges. And we know from Basso-Arnoux 1916 that his father wore sea silk gloves in Sardinia in the 19th century.
It is striking that no liturgical textiles made of or with sea silk have been found until today, although they are frequently mentioned in literature. Or does this tradition also go back to the misunderstanding of the term byssus? More about this in the chapter on linguistic aspects → Byssus and byssus. Bock, at any rate, is unambiguous in his history of the liturgical vestments of the Middle Ages of 1866: “Bis zu jenen Zeiten, wo der Handel mit dem Oriente dem Abendlande jenen kostbaren, glänzend weissen Byssusstoff lieferte, wurden vielfach die festtäglichen Alben der Bischöfe aus diesem theuern, ägyptischen Leinen angefertigt. Unter diesem Byssusstoffe, der hinsichtlich seiner Feinheit und Durchsichtigkeit, sowie seiner weissen Farbe mehrere Qualitäten hatte, bezeichnete man im frühen Mittelalter, wie auch im Alterthume, vornehmlich jene feine Sorte von Leinen, die man aus dem Morgenlande, namentlich aber aus Aegypten, dem alten Heimathlande des Byssus, zu beziehen pflegte.” (in: English: Until those times, when trade with the Orient supplied the Occident with this precious, shiny white byssus fabric, the festive albs of the bishops were often made of this expensive Egyptian linen. In the early Middle Ages, as in ancient times, this byssus fabric, which had several qualities regarding its fineness and transparency as well as its white colour, was mainly used to describe the fine type of linen that was used to be obtained from the Orient, but especially from Egypt, the old home country of byssus.) A medieval priest’s robe of the church of Saint-Yves in Louannec (Brittany), which is claimed by some to include sea silk, has been analyzed very well and consists of mulberry silk, linen and gold threads (de Reyer 1997).
The inventory includes all objects found to date, from the late Middle Ages to the middle of the 20th century. Important: Of all the ascriptions, we cannot say with absolute certainty that they are sea silk. Except: the fibres have been analyzed and determined to be sea silk. Or the objects come from natural history collections. Since these mostly formed accompanying objects of a pinna shell and its fibre beard, it can be assumed that it is indeed sea silk.
In recent years the fact that there are still several sea silk weavers in Sardinia – not just one, the pretended last one – has slowly become known to the public. These weavers deserve to be brought out of their anonymity. Some of these works can be seen in the chapter Historical aspects → Modern times → 2000-2020.