Ahab’s Wife is a book I thoroughly enjoyed. First of all, it’s a book written into the space left by the scant details about Captain Ahab’s personal life in Moby Dick, which is obviously one of the best books ever. Second, it’s got a great protofeminist hero who has incredible adventures all her own; she’s not just pacing the widow’s walk waiting for her wacky husband. I’d say the downside is that sometimes the plot is a little too contrived, but I’d still give it a hearty recommendation.
What does this book have to do with mollusks? Well, it introduced me to byssus! Byssus are the protein fibers that some bivalve mollusks use to attach themselves to their substrate. I had perhaps heard of a mussel’s beard before, but what I didn’t know was that byssus is a fiber that is used in textile arts. Holy cow!
Here’s a photo of byssus in the wild taken by Mila Zinkova at my beloved Ocean Beach in San Francisco.
I’m a spinner, and a large part of the fun of spinning is trying out all the different fibers that exist in the world. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I’ve spun with fiber from sheep, goats, rabbits, musk oxen, cotton plants, flax plants, bamboo, silk, alpaca, Bactrian camel, yak, kelp, and even soy fiber derived from the leftovers of making tofu. I haven’t spun with byssus, but only because I’m not sure how to get my hands on it. Perhaps I should ask a restaurant that serves mussels to save me some beards? It’s an idea. While I don’t love the idea of an animal having to die so that I can spin its fiber, the mussels are dying because people harvest them to eat them, so to my sense of ethics it’s more a case of creative reuse. Why, apart from my curiosity, would I want to spin byssus? Because it makes beautiful yarn, that’s why! Check out this glove knit from byssus yarn. The photo was taken by John Hill during a visit to the Smithsonian.
I will certainly report back with any success stories regarding the acquisition of byssus fiber.