Byssus – My Grand Discovery

A Short Summary of Byssus

Last summer (2015), I was perusing some technical articles on textile archaeology and I came across a reference to Byssus, a fiber also called “Sea Silk” spun from the collagen/keratin complex produced by the Pinna Nobilis, clam.  I found it so intriguing, I began to google everything I could learn about this mysterious fiber with a history of sacred use for over 7,000 years.

The Pinna Nobilis

What I learned was that Byssus was a sacred art fiber spun from a very particular type of clam, which is now an endangered species.  This most revered, largest and “noble” species of clam is called the Pinna Nobilis and can grow up to 1 meter high, standing straight up on the ocean floor, like in the photo below. This bronzed clam sculpture reached just below my arm pit and was the actual clam.

The pina nobilis clam

7,000 Year History of Sacred Use

Byssus is exceedingly rare, requiring great dedication to produce a usable fiber.  The arduous process required to refine it was probably one of the reasons it was reserved only for the most sacred applications.  Presumably it was used as the first altar cloth, it was believed to be the material from which the Golden Fleece was made, it was used for robes of Pharaohs, Rabbis, Popes and kings, among other religious artifacts like the Veil of Veronica.  It’s primary captivating qualities are that when held in the sunlight, it gleams like gold and is completely weightless.

In art, Byssus is portrayed as a gossamer veil, as you can see from this piece by the Master of Femalle depicting the Veil of Veronica in 1430.

"Sweat Cloth" painted by the Master of Flemalle (Veil of Veronica - presumably Byssus)
“Sweat Cloth” Painted by the Master of Flémalle, ca. 1430

The Maestro of Byssus

In my research, I learned of “The Maestro of Byssus” – Chiara Vigo, quite possibly the very last woman in the world who knows how to create this magical fiber from clam protein.  Not long after discovering the article, I saw a BBC report on the very same subject and short article also appeared in Vogue Knitting for fiber enthusiasts.

Her protegees told me that people from all over the world contact her to buy Byssus and to get her time, but they protect Chiara Vigo by responding on her behalf to keep the profiteers away.  So I feel very privileged that she responded so immediately to my email, inviting me to be her guest.  I made it very clear that I simply wanted to learn because I knew that money was never to be discussed or near this sacred fiber.

Christine & Maestro Chiara Vigo

23 Generations of Maestra

Chiara Vigo descends from 23 generations of women who have served as Maestra of Bisso; their works are priceless and can be found in the Louvre and comparable museums worldwide.  In fact, she was called in by international art conservationists and the Italian government to join a team of textile archaeologists to determine the fiber content of  the Veil of Veronica.  It could be dated, but no one was familiar with the fiber.  It was Byssus, of course.

Discussion of the Manipolo

She received a commendation from the Italian Government, is a consultant to the Vatican and is called upon by foreign governments to do the same for textile antiquities.

Maestro’s Commendation from the Vatican

Maestro's commendation by the Pope

Absolutely Weightless

I’ve touched A LOT of fiber over the years.  But never have I ever held 120 gm of fiber in my hand without knowing it.

The Maestro asked me to close my eyes as she placed 120 grams of cleaned and carded Byssus in my palm.  I waited for the longest time to open my eyes because I never felt it touch my hand. I asked her to try the experiment again by turning my hand over, in the event that my palm was not sensitive enough, and sure enough, it was simply weightless and imperceptible; however, over the course of a few moments, I began to feel warmth, and that is the only way I knew I was holding it.

This bit of Byssus was “blonded” in her special secret formula of lemon juice, herbs and oil, so it appeared I was holding strands of gold, which felt like angel hair.

The weightlessness of Byssus

I took this photo from the internet because my eyes were closed during this process.

Byssus raw fiber after blonding

“Blonding” & Dyeing

Converting the brownish claim fiber into glistening gold involves processing in natural oils, herbs and lemon juice all accompanied by more than 40 different Aramaic prayers and songs.  The only other colors used are the sacred colors of red and royal purple achieved with fruits and grapes.

The Lion

Chiara Vigo uses many symbols that have a folk art quality, but are actually based on ancient depictions, like this lion, which has Phoenician qualities.  She brought this piece outdoors to show how the gold gleams in the sunlight, while looking a little coppery brown indoors.  The Lion is her design embroidered in blonded Byssus on handmade, handwoven linen.

The Lion - Chiara Vigo's symbol of feminine strength

Priceless – Never to be Sold

Collecting, carding, treating & spinning Byssus involves prayer in Aramaic, special songs, specific hand movements, herbs, spices, wine and lemon juice all for spiritual purposes.  There is to be no money exchanged for it.  Byssus can never be sold.

Over the centuries, Byssus has been woven into cloth, and has been used to embroider religious garments for various faiths.  In fact, Chiara Vigo, the Maestro, is a consultant to the Vatican and regularly embroiders the Popes’ names onto their vestments in Byssus. She herself descends from a Judeo-Phoenician line.

Examples of her hand-woven cloth & Byssus embroidery

Sacred Labor

Chiara Vigo dives at a highly specific time of year (May-June) when the ocean reaches just a two degree temperature range and ocean salinity is just 4ppt, to harvest just the very top 2-5 cm of the Pinna Nobilis hair.  In one season, this highly labor intensive process yielded about 300 gm of fiber after at least 100 dives, but after carding and cleaning, only 120 gm was usable.  As a result, one of her masterpieces took five years to create.

Maestro Chiara Vigo dives for the clam keratin
At 60 Years Old, the Maestro Still Dives to Harvest Byssus Herself

She created a lovely metaphor about how humans are of the sea and that is why our tears are salty. After she harvests the Byssus, it needs to be soaked every three hours for 25 days, to remove the salt and in that regard, creating something of Byssus for the distraught, the poor and those in need symbolically helps to take away their salty tears.

Maestro Chiara Vigo autographs my book

Maestro Chiara Vigo autographs my book

Maestro Autographs My Book with the Peacock – Pre-Christian & Ancient Christian symbol of Eternal Life

The Maniturgium

What is a Maniturgium?

I asked the same question when my dear friend told me that he wanted one to be part of his ordination ceremony as a Catholic priest.

A Maniturgium is a religious vestment, typically an embroidered linen cloth, held by the priest during the ordination ceremony.  After the ordination, the priest wipes the oil from his head and hands onto the cloth.  The cloth is usually presented to the priest’s mother, who is buried with it so that when she reaches Heaven, she can prove to God that she gifted Him a priest.

It’s an old tradition that is becoming popular again.

So when my friend said he wanted a Maniturgium, and I knew it had something to do with fiber, I volunteered to knit one.  Never mind that it has always been embroidered linen, traditionally.  But I feel my friend is extraordinary, so he should have an extraordinary Maniturgium!

He is also very humble, asking only that it be white and include the Chi Rho symbol.  So the rest was left to my imagination…which was daunting because there is no pattern, chart or guideline for what I was about to undertake for one of the most significant events in his life.  Honestly, that degree of importance temporarily arrested my creativity until I began to view the opportunity before me.

Choosing the Fiber

It had to be exquisite, luxurious and luminous for such a momentous occasion.  Silk came to mind instantly.  After extensive research and visits to local fiber arts galleries, I selected a natural, undyed 100% silk called “Luscious Silk” sold by Blue Moon Fiber Arts in Scappoose, Oregon.

Starting weight 1 sm

Luscious Silk from Blue Moon Fiber Arts

 

I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t fall short during the creation process, so I purchased approximately 700 yards, weighing the yarn before starting and at various intervals during the knitting process to ensure there would be sufficient fiber to finish this important project.

Labeled “fingering” weight, Luscious Silk feels more like heavy fingering, or better yet, sport weight fiber in my opinion.  This changed the nature of my project a little, but in the end I’m happy it was a heavier, denser fiber.

Aptly named, it really felt lusciously luxurious on my hands while knitting and I really enjoy its pearlescent luminosity.

 The Design

I’m a list maker.  So in coming up with the design, I made a list of criteria that included beauty, function, feel and second to beauty – symbolism. 

The design needed to be beautiful first, but also compact and densely knit because after all, I was requiring a knit item to perform the duties of tightly woven fabric.  It had to feel substantive while also being able to withstand the attachment of embroidery.  I also wanted a subtle, elegant pattern.

I settled on a densely knit “Diamond within a Diamond” pattern.Close up with silk skein sm

I used a provisional cast on in the beginning and left live stitches at the end so that I could return later to knit the ends in garter with the insertion of three bee stitches in the center, bordered by eyelets.

I picked up and knit 5 border rows in the garter stitch at the top and the bottom of the piece, because I love the look of “pearls” and thought they offered a nice complement to “diamonds.”  I chose the Russian bind off with one half size smaller needle (2) to keep a firm, but sufficiently flexible edge.

Symbolism

The Diamond within a Diamond pattern was my first choice because the diamond is the most prized earthly gem.  It seemed fitting to be the center panel.

Diamond with a Diamond

Diamond with a Diamond

Because the Maniturgium is given to the priest’s mother, I wanted to honor my friend’s mother in the design as she had already passed away.  Her name was “Pamela” which he told me meant “For Honey” (Pa Mela).

I knew right away that I needed to incorporate the symbolism of a bee into the design.  Ironically, I’m a beekeeper, so this was a joyful discovery.  I knit 3 “bees” at the beginning and end of the piece because she was there for him in the beginning, and she would be there for him in the end.

3 Bees sm

The Bee Stitch

Close up of the Bees

Close up of the Bees

 

Stitching the Chi Rho

 

Just Getting Started on the Stitching sm

Attaching the Chi Rho

The Chi Rho (pronounced just like Cairo) is made up from the superimposition of the Greek letters Chi (X) and Rho (P).  This is another symbol and name for Christ, sometimes called a Christogram.

As a child, I remember my mother embroidering at night.  I had my own hoop and learned a few basic stitches, but embroidery was really my mom’s forte, so I enlisted her to embroider the Chi Rho in the center panel of the Maniturgium.  I knew it would be far more challenging to embroider on knitted fabric with all its highs and lows versus on a tightly woven, flat material.  But I didn’t fully anticipate how this unevenness and variation in stitch height would be emphasized by the embroidery thread.  We purchased 15 different types of embroidery and sewing threads and she worked tirelessly to embroider the symbol.  None of the threads produced a result my mom found acceptable.  She saved the day by finding a professional embroiderer who was able to take the design I created in Illustrator and digitize it for his embroidery machine, which I then carefully razored away from the fabric to be sewn to the center of the piece.

Here I am getting started on stitching the embroidered Chi Rho symbol onto the center of the Maniturgium.  See the transparent filament thread I used hanging from the needle?  (Neither could I.)  It was tough.

Stitching on the Chi Rho sm

Transparent Filament Thread

In the end, it all worked out.  The Maniturgium is 4 1/2″ wide by 60″ long and consists of 18,003 stitches, divisible by 3, 6001 times.  Here are some pictures of the finished piece, which will be used today, June 5, at the ordination of Timothy J. Furlow in Portland, Oregon.

Timothy's Maniturgium

Timothy’s Maniturgium

Tim's Maniturgium 1 sm

 

Right & Left side of Maniturgium

Right & Left side of Maniturgium

 

Close up of the Bees

Close up of the Bees

 

Rolled Maniturgium sm

 

 

Chi Rho Close Up sm

CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR ORDINATION, TIMOTHY

Interesting Facts About Knitting

Interesting Facts About Knitting

No one knows how old knialbert-samuel-anker-knitting-girl-1345259187_btting really is, though it is generally thought to be older than handcrafts (rug hooking) but not as old as weaving.d

Many ancient textile fragments thought to be knitting have turned out to be nålebinding (Danish for literally “binding with a needle), an ancient form of needlecraft that is sometimes referred to as “single-needle knitting.”j

The history of knitting is not well known because fabrics used for knitting are made of wool, silk, and other fibers that decay rapidly. Additionally, knitting needles are hard to distinguish beyond a doubt from hair picks, skewers, spindles, or the other many uses of a sharpened stick.h

Historians posit that knitting is a relatively recent invention because there are no ancient legends of knitting like there are legends of spinning and weaving, such as Arachne, Ixazaluoh, Nephthys, Amaterasu. There are no ancient gods or goddesses who knit.j

Knitting is considered to have originated in the Arab world, and from there, spread with the Crusades into Spain. The term “to knit” wasn’t added to English until the 1400s.h

The earliest known types of knitting by nomadic people in the desert places of North Africa actually used circular or narrow, oblong wooden frames. The knitting action was similar to “bobbin work.” Historians are unsure when the frames were dispensed with and knitting began to be directly on hooked knitting needles.j

One of the earliest known examples of knitting (formed on two sticks by pulling loops through loops) were a pair of cotton socks found in Egypt from the first millennium A.D. Many of them have knit into them khufic (a decorative Arabic script) blessings, symbols to ward off evil, or both.h

Men were the first to knit for an occupation

Knitting was initially a male-only occupation.d

The first knitting trade guild was started in 1527 in Paris.j

When the knitting machine was invented, hand knitting became useful but nonessential. Like quilting, spinning, and needlepoint, knitting has become a leisurely activity.j

The world’s fastest knitter is Miriam Tegels of the Netherlands. She can hand knit 118 stitches in one minute.a

Linda Benne has been the North American speed-knitting champ for the past 10 years. She can knit 253 stitches in 3 minutes.a

The record for the most people knitting simultaneously happened September 2012 in Royal Albert Hall, London, when 3,083 people knitted together for 15 minutes.b

Mega knitting is a recent term that refers to the use of knitting needles that are greater than or equal to half an inch in diameter. Mega knitting uses needles that have been carved at the tips into hooks. The hooks help prevent stitches from slipping off the needles. Mega knitting usually creates more chunky, bulky fabric or an open lacy weave.b

The knitting machine was invented in 1589 (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth) by William Lee, a clergyman. After the invention of the knitting machine, knitting was gradually taken over by guild-organized cottage industries in the 17th and 18th centuries.d

The full-fashioned knitting machine was invented in 1864 by William Cotton of Leicestershire, England.j

Knitting for 30 minutes burns 55 calories

Americans have sex an average of 6 minutes per sexual encounter. These six minutes burn about 21 calories. A person burns 55 calories by knitting for half an hour.e

Early knitting needles were typically made from bone, ivory, or tortoise shell.h

David Babcock entered the Guinness World Record when he finished the Kansas City marathon in 5 hours 48 minutes 27 seconds—all while knitting a scarf measuring 12 feet, 1¾ inches long. He eclipsed the previous Guinness World Record, held by Britain’s Susie Hewer. To be eligible, competitors must complete the marathon in less than six hours.k

Live TV, a Norwegian public broadcasting network, plans to dedicate five hours of airtime in an attempt to break the knitting world record. The current nonstop record is held by Australia at 4 hours 50 minutes.i

The longest French knitting is 16.36 miles (26.33 km) long by Edward Hannaford in Sittingbourne, UK. He has been working on the French knitting since 1989 and is working on it still.g

Knitting first appeared in England during the 13th century in the form of felted caps that were worn by soldiers and sailors. However, knitting did not become a popular method for creating other garments due to the difficulty of producing quality steel needles.d

Queen Victoria was a prolific knitter until her death. In fact, the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) saw an explosion of all sorts of handwork, including knitting, which coincided with the development of trade with the woolgrowers.h

During WWI, vast quantities of knitted socks, scarves, mittens, and helmets were sent to the soldiers in France. Knitting gave emotional comfort to the women who were at home waiting for news from the front.h

Changes in fashion in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the huge influx of cheap imported knitwear, led to decreased interest in knitting. The cost of buying yarn compared unfavorably to buying ready-made clothes.h

While knitting has gone in and out of fashion for the last 200 years, the early 21st century has seen new interest in knitting with an influx of new fibers, with yarns made from bamboo, soy, hemp, alpaca, camel, and microfiber, and more. Additionally, there are hand-painted and hand-dyed yarns, pure cashmere, and other exotic blends. There are also beautiful needles made from bamboo, rosewood, and ebony.h

There are three basic types of knitting needles: standard “pin” style, double pointed, and circular.d

The word “knit” is derived from the Old English cnyttan, which means “to knot.”h

Between 2002 and 2004, the number of women knitters in the U.S. ages 25–35 increased nearly 150%.f

During 1940s, interest in continental knitting (or knitting with the yarn in one’s left hand) decreased because of its origins in Germany, while English knitting (or knitting with the yarn in the right hand) rose in popularity. Its reintroduction into the United States is most often associated with Elizabeth Zimmerman.h

While both continental and English knitting are used in the U.S. and England, Japanese knitters usually prefer the continental style and Chinese knitters prefer the English style. Many other countries typically use the continental style, such as Peru, Turkey, Bolivia, Greece, and Portugal.d

“Ravelry” is a social networking site for those who knit, crochet, spin, and weave. As of 2013, the site has over 3 million members worldwide.l

The U.S. Olympic Committee sent a cease-and-desist letter to the knitting website Ravelry.com stating that their “Ravelympics” infringes on their copyright. The letter states that Ravelry’s afghan marathon, scarf hockey, and sweater triathlon “denigrate” the Games.l

Famous people who knit include Julia Roberts, Vanna White, Cameron Diaz, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julianna Margulies, and many others.f

Some women in the past have attempted self-abortions with knitting needles. However, a woman’s uterus is almost always tilted forwards or backwards, and inserting a rigid instrument into the abdominal wall, such as knitting needle, can easily puncture its wall. A large number of women have either died or experienced serious complications from self-abortions with knitting needles.b

It is important to knit a sock with “negative ease,” which means the circumference of the sock is smaller than the circumference of a leg and foot to keep the sock from slouching or shifting.d

Knitting can create a relaxation response, which can decrease blood pressure and heart rate and help prevent illness.b

For the first four or five hundred years of knitting’s history, the most common knitting materials were cotton and silk, not wool.h

Some scholars argue that further proof that knitting was invented in the Middle East is found in the way knitters work their stiches: even though English speakers write from left to write, knitters work the stitches from right to left.h

In the 1350s, “knitting Madonna’s” began to appear in Europe, depicting the Virgin Mary knitting. These include Our Lady Knitting (c. 1325–1375) and Visit of the Angel (1400–1410). These paintings are important markers that indicate when knitting entered Europe and how knitting was done.h

Tricoteuse is French for “knitting woman.” During the French Revolution, a group of knitting women would sit beside the guillotine and knit through the executions. The Commune of Paris organized and paid these women to attend beheadings and tribunals “to greet death, to insult the victims, and to glut their eyes with blood.” They would jeer and shriek and knit as the upper class were led to the guillotine.h

In 1566, King Eric of Sweden owned 27 pairs of knitted silk stockings imported from Spain. Each knitted pair cost the same as his valet’s yearly salary.h

There were shepherds in the Landes swamps in France known as tchangues (“big legs”) who would knit on stilts while they watched their flocks. The need for stilt walking and shepherds were obliterated by the early 20th century when the government planted a forest of maritime pines over the swamps.h

The first knitting pattern book of any kind at all was the 16th-century Modelbuch, which was a printed pattern collection specifically for embroidery and lace. By the mid-17th century, patterns specifically for knitting were emerging within some pages of pattern books. In 1761, Susanna Dorothea Kriegl published an early pattern book devoted exclusively to knitting, the Strikkemøstre (Knitting Patterns).h

The term “Stitch-n-Bitch” has been used at least since WWII to refer to social knitting groups. It is also the title of a 2003 knitter’s handbook. Scholars note that these social groups often act as a form of resistance to major political, social, and technological change in Western societies.d

The countries of East Asia have no native history of hand knitting. Though hand and machine knitting now are popular there, knitting has come to them mostly through the modernization process in the 19th and 20th centuries.j

References

a Ballingall, Alex.  “Mississauga Woman Reigns Supreme as North America’s Fastest Knitter.” November 29, 2013. Accessed: November 29, 2013.

b “Celebrate Knit in Public Week with 10 Knitting Facts You Might Not Know.” Craftsy. June 11, 2013. Accessed: November 29, 2013.

c “The Consequences of Illegal Abortions with Knitting Needles (Left Inside).” Museum for Contraception and Abortion. 2013. Accessed: November 29, 2013.

d Gardner, Sue, ed. 2007. A to Z of Knitting: The Ultimate Guide for the Beginner to Advanced Knitter. Woodinville, WA: Martingale & Company.

e Grant, Erika. “Science Says Knitting Burns More Calories Than Sex.” Food Beast. February 3, 2013. Accessed: November 29, 2013.

f “Knitting & Crocheting Are Hot!” CYC Press. 2012. February 2012. Accessed: November 29, 2013.

g “Longest French Knitting.” Guinness World Records. 2012. Accessed: November 29, 2013.

h Nargi, Lela. 2011. Knitting around the World: A Multistranded History of a Time-Honored Tradition. Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press.

i “Norway to Show Hours of Knitting Live on TV in World Record Attempt.” Fox News. October 4, 2013. Accessed: November 29, 2013.

j Rutt, Richard. 1987. A History of Hand Knitting. London, UK: B.T. Batsford.

k Siddique, Haroon. “New Guinness World Record for Longest Scarf Knitted While Running a Marathon.” The Guardian. October 22, 2013. Accessed: November 29, 2013.

l Whiteside, Kelly. “USOC Tangled Up in Knitting Controversy before London Games.” USA Today. June 21, 2012. Accessed: November 29, 2013.