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Eliot Stein’s “The Last Surviving Sea Silk Seamstress”

The 87th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Winners

Learn Eliot Stein’s grand prize-winning piece, “The Last Surviving Sea Silk Seamstress” from the 87th Author’s Digest Annual Writing Competitors.

“The Last Surviving Sea Silk Seamstress,” a magazine function by Eliot Stein, is the Grand Prize winner of the 87th Annual Author’s Digest Writing Competitors. You’ll be able to learn an prolonged interview with Stein right here. For full protection of the 87th Annual Author’s Digest Writing Competitors, please take a look at the November/December 2018 difficulty of Author’s Digest, and uncover which WD competitions are presently accepting entries at

The Last Surviving Sea Silk Seamstress

Byssus, or sea silk, is likely one of the rarest and most coveted supplies on the planet. In the present day, there is just one individual left on the planet who is aware of how one can harvest, dye and spin it into elaborate patterns that glisten like gold.

Every spring, underneath the duvet of darkness and guarded by members of the Italian Coast Guard, a 62-year-old lady named Chiara Vigo slips on a white tunic, recites a prayer and plunges headfirst into the crystalline sea off the tiny Sardinian island of Sant’Antioco.

Utilizing the moonlight to information her, Vigo descends as much as 15m under the floor to succeed in a collection of secluded underwater coves and grassy lagoons that the ladies in her household have stored secret for the previous 24 generations. She then makes use of a tiny scalpel to rigorously trim the razor-thin fibers rising from the information of a extremely endangered Mediterranean clam referred to as the noble pen shell, or pinna nobilis.

It takes about 100 dives to reap 30g of usable strands, which type when the mollusk’s secreted saliva is available in contact with salt water and solidifies into keratin. Solely then is Vigo prepared to start cleansing, spinning and weaving the fragile threads. Generally known as byssus, or sea silk, it’s one of many rarest and most coveted supplies on the planet.

Immediately, Vigo is believed to be the final individual on Earth who nonetheless is aware of the right way to harvest, dye and embroider sea silk into elaborate patterns that glisten like gold within the daylight.

Ladies in Mesopotamia used the exceptionally mild material to embroider garments for his or her kings some 5,000 years in the past. It was harvested to make robes for King Solomon, bracelets for Nefertiti, and holy vestments for clergymen, popes and pharaohs. It’s referenced on the Rosetta Stone, talked about 45 occasions within the Previous Testomony and considered the fabric that God commanded Moses to drape on the altar within the Tabernacle.

Nobody is exactly positive how or why the ladies in Vigo’s household began weaving byssus, however for greater than 1,000 years, the intricate methods, patterns and dying formulation of sea silk have been handed down by means of this astonishing thread of girls – every of whom has guarded the secrets and techniques tightly earlier than educating them to their daughters, nieces or granddaughters.

After an invite to go to Vigo’s one-room studio, I abruptly discovered myself face-to-face with the final surviving sea silk seamstress, watching her magically spin solidified clam spit into gold.

I slowly approached the small picket desk the place Vigo labored, strolling previous a 200-year-old loom, glass jars full of murky indigo and amber potions and a certificates confirming her highest order of knighthood from the Italian Republic forged apart on the ground.

“If you want to enter my world, I’ll show it to you,” she smiled. “But you’d have to stay here for a lifetime to understand it.”

Vigo discovered the traditional craft from her maternal grandmother, who taught conventional wool weaving methods on guide looms to the ladies of Sant’Antioco for 60 years. She remembers her grandmother paddling her into the ocean in a rowboat to show her to dive when she was three years previous. By age 12, she sat atop a pillow, weaving on the loom.

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

Vigo is called su maistu (‘the master,’ in Sardo). There can solely be one maistu at a time, and as a way to grow to be one, you have to dedicate your life to studying the methods from the prevailing grasp. Just like the 23 ladies earlier than her, Vigo has by no means made a penny from her work. She is sure by a sacred ‘Sea Oath’ that maintains that byssus ought to by no means be purchased or bought.

In reality, regardless of weaving works for show within the Louvre, the British Museum and the Vatican, Vigo doesn’t have a single piece of byssus in her residence. She lives in a modest condo together with her husband, they usually reside off his pension as a coal miner and donations from guests who cease by Vigo’s studio.

As an alternative, Vigo defined that the one solution to obtain byssus is as a present. She’s created items for Pope Benedict XVI and the Queen of Denmark, however most of the time she embroiders designs for newlywed couples, youngsters celebrating a christening and ladies who come to her in hopes of turning into pregnant.

“Byssus doesn’t belong to me, but to everyone,” Vigo asserted. “Selling it would be like trying to profit from the sun or the tides.”

However that hasn’t stopped individuals from making an attempt. Based on Małgorzata Biniecka, writer of The Masters of Byssus, Silk and Linen, till the 1930s the one different place apart from Sant’Antioco the place the custom of sea silk harvesting and embroidering continued was the town of Taranto, Italy.

“A woman there forsake the Sea Oath and tried to establish a commercial byssus industry,” Biniecka stated. “A year later, it went bankrupt and she mysteriously died.”

Extra just lately, a Japanese businessman approached Vigo with a suggestion to buy her most well-known piece, ‘The Lion of Women’, for €2.5 million. It took Vigo 4 years to sew the glimmering 45x45cm design together with her fingernails, and she or he devoted it to ladies all over the place.

“I told him, ‘Absolutely not,’” she declared. “The women of the world are not for sale.”

Neither is the painstaking course of behind her items, which she slowly revealed throughout my four-day go to.

After harvesting uncooked byssus from the depths of the ocean, she desalts the fibers by submerging them in recent water for 25 days, altering the water each three hours. As soon as they dry, she cleans the threads with a carding brush to take away any remaining sediment.

Then comes the toughest half: separating every strand of pure sea silk from the tangle of uncooked byssus. As a result of sea silk is 3 times finer than a strand of human hair, Vigo friends by way of a lamp with a magnifying glass as she delicately plucks every thread of silk utilizing a pair of tweezers.

“It may seem easy now,” she stated. “But my fingers have been practicing this for 50 years.”

On a number of events after Vigo extracted a thick tuft of fibers, she ordered me to shut my eyes and prolong my hand. Every time I felt nothing. After about 10 seconds, I’d open my eyes to see Vigo rolling a weightless cloud of sea silk forwards and backwards on my palm.

Subsequent, she twists the silk manually round a small picket spindle, often singing in Sardo – the closest dwelling type of Latin – through the course of. When the fibers type an extended thread, she grabs a jar of cloudy yellowish liquid from the shelf.

“Now, we’ll enter a magical realm,” she stated, dropping the skinny thread right into a secret concoction of lemon, spices and 15 several types of algae. Inside seconds, the thread turns into elastic and she or he excitedly ushered me outdoors to point out the way it shimmered within the daylight. Vigo has an encyclopedic information of 124 pure dye variations comprised of fruits, flowers and seashells.

Lastly, Vigo intertwines the spun silk into the linen warp utilizing her fingernails. It takes 15 straight days of extracting and dying uncooked byssus to create sufficient threads to weave just some centimeters. Some items, like a 50x60cm material of pure sea silk weighing simply 2g, take six years to sew. Others, just like the bigger tapestries draped atop her loom depicting Biblical passages and pagan deities, take even longer.

“There are 140 patterns in my family, eight of which will never be written and have been passed down orally from generation to generation,” she stated.

However after greater than 1,000 years in the identical matrilineal household tree, this historic thread might quickly unravel.

Based on custom, the inheritor to the byssus secrets and techniques is Vigo’s youngest daughter, Maddalena. Like her personal grandmother, Vigo started educating her the best way to dive and embroider at an early age.

“The only thing she’s missing is the formulas for the dye potions,” Vigo informed me.

However there’s an issue: “My mother and I are very different,” Maddalena stated from her house in Dublin, Eire, the place she’s been dwelling for the previous two years. “People have always told me that I’d be a fool to allow this art to die, but I’m desperately torn. My life is mine.”

What’s extra, after creating the world’s solely museum devoted to byssus in 2005, Vigo awoke in the future final autumn to seek out that the federal government of Sant’Antioco had unexpectedly closed her free Museo del Bisso, citing that the constructing’s electrical system wasn’t as much as code.

“The ‘electrical problem’ was me!” Vigo snapped. “The municipality tried to force me to charge entrance fees and write down my patterns and secrets. But I will defend this sacred oath with my fingernails as long as I breathe!”

The information drew nationwide consideration, spurring a web-based petition that garnered almost 20,000 signatures – together with that of the President of Sardinia – to no avail.

Just lately, two younger artists began a crowdfunding marketing campaign to assist Vigo lease the one-room studio the place she now works. Sarcastically, it’s the identical room the place Vigo’s grandmother taught her methods to spin sea silk 50 years in the past. Until they will increase €85,000 to buy the rent-to-own property by November 2018, the city will evict her and the world will not be capable of watch its final sea silk seamstress spin byssus into gold.

On my final night with Vigo, she led me to a secluded cove the place ladies in her household have prayed for so long as she will keep in mind. Because the solar melted into the ocean, she stood on the fringe of a tidal pool, closed her eyes and commenced a mystical, virtually shamanic chant.

She then reached deep right into a bag, pulled out a clump of 300-year-old byssus from a vial, and spun an extended thread of sea silk.

“The secrets may die with me,” she stated, tying the thread round my wrist. “But the silk of the sea will live on.”

For full protection of the 87th Annual Author’s Digest Writing Competitors, please take a look at the November/December 2018 problem of Author’s Digest.


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