The last woman who makes sea silk

Vigo is sitting in a far corner of the room surrounded by yarns and canvasses, holding hands with a young woman whose eyes are full of tears. She caresses her and braids a bracelet while staring intensely at the girl. Then she hums a song with her eyes closed and fixes the bracelet on the girl’s wrist. She reaches for the window and opens the shades to let the sunlight in and instantly the dark brown bracelet starts to gleam. The girl is flabbergasted but this is no magic. The bracelet is made of an ancient thread, known as byssus, which is mentioned on the Rosetta stone and said to have been found in the tombs of pharaohs. Some believe it was the cloth God told Moses to lay on the first altar. It was the finest fabric known to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and one of its remarkable properties is the way it shines when exposed to the sun, once it has been treated with lemon juice and spices. Another is that it is extraordinarily light. Chiara Vigo asked me to close my eyes and extend my hand. I knew what she was going to do, but still I could not tell when a small square of the cloth touched my skin. The raw material comes from the glistening aquamarine wasters that surround the island. Every spring Vigo goes diving to cut the solidified saliva of a large clam, known in Latin as Pinna Nobilis.

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