The Como textile district is one of the many flagships of the “bel paese”. Its Textile vocation has ancient origins. It is famous all over the world for the production of printed and woven silks: international clients, fashion and interior designers often come to visit our textile companies to learn about the fascinating production techniques and to have access to their wonderful historical archives.
Nowadays, around Como we have our “home silk”, but it hasn’t always been this way.
It was with this in mind that I was very struck by hearing the story of an old teacher of mine who highlighted to me how change is taking place continuously.
I think back to when at the beginning of June he came to class with a basket full of blackberries, which were different than usual: they were fruits of the mulberry tree.
That afternoon, before coming to school, he had been to the park to pick them up.
He told me about the memories that the sight of the mulberry trees full of fruit brought to mind. In the area north of Milan they used to call mulberry trees: “Murun”.
He told me that during the springs of his youth, his family, like many others in the Como area, organized itself to raise silkworms at home with the aim of obtaining silk cocoons to sell and to feed the local silk production.
Throughout the growth period, the silkworms were kept sheltered in cardboard boxes or in well-ventilated litters and fed every 2 or 3 hours, even at night, with fresh mulberry leaves that had to be collected in huge quantities, cut into small regular pieces and distributed immediately into the slots.
This activity involved the whole family 24 hours a day.
Sericulture was a very widespread activity, because it did not require specific or expensive equipment, but only great effort and dedication.
“Murun” were everywhere, they were planted in large quantities also in city parks, so you could easily get food for your silkworms by going in the neighborhood. The benign nature provided for everyone's need for mulberry leaves.
I was very impressed by discovering that once upon a time - less than 100 years ago - my country’s design vocation involved people to the point of getting it into their homes.
It was a physical involvement as sweat on the forehead. As it is natural, thanks to the growing economic well-being, the practice of raising silkworms was abandoned, because it was no longer necessary for families or advantageous for businesses.
Drawing by Clara Rigamonti, pencil and mulberry leaves
Silk is a fiber of animal origin, produced by a particular type of moth, the Bombyx Mori.
Its life cycle goes through four stages: from egg, it becomes a worm, then a chrysalis with his cocoons and finally a Moth. The entire transformation cycle takes about forty to sixty days.
When the silkworm is ready, it looks for a quiet place on a branch where it begins to emit a thin silk filament up to a thousand meters long in order to build its cocoon. The process can take up to three days.
Since the breaking of the cocoon would irreparably ruin the silk thread, it is necessary to stop the metamorphosis of the butterfly so that it is possible to reeling the thread.
The characteristics that make silk particularly appreciated are: elasticity, softness, shininess, resistance and lightness.
Silk fabrics are light and good for draping and once dyed their color is matchless in terms of bright and vibrancy. These fabrics have always been a symbol of wealth, power and elegance.
Silk is the Chinese fiber par excellence. The production of silk fabrics has very ancient origins veiled in mystery. Like all natural fibers, silk hasn't left many traces. This is why it is quite impossible to establish precise silk’s origins. It is likely that sericulture first appeared six or seven thousand years ago. In this regard, the most ancient find - a plain-colored silk fabric with a canvas weave - dates back to 2750 BC.
According to a legend, silk was discovered by chance by the wife of the Yellow Emperor, Lei Zu. The young empress was under a mulberry tree having tea, when a cocoon fell from a branch on her head and from there into the cup she was holding in her hand, as the cocoon sank in the cup, it made a faint sound. Because of the hot temperature of the drink the cocoon melted by releasing a continuous silk filament. The thread was so long that the empress was able to spread it all over the garden as if it were a mist that covered everything.
For at least 5,000 years silk was a Chinese monopoly and was not officially exported until the Han dynasty, around the year 140 BC. Before that it was forbidden to export worms, seeds or saplings. Penalty: death.
When Chinese silk arrived in other regions it had a crazy expensive price and it was admired by all.
In addition to being very precious, oriental silk fabrics were a powerful status symbol, for all these reasons in the first century BC. in Egypt, Cleopatra used to wear very fine silk and transparent veils.
Images from Cleopatra movie, 1963
The reworking of imported silk fabrics was a widespread habit. In Western Asia, Chinese silks were purchased to be used as a base for the creation of embroidery. Another custom provided for undo and re weave silk fabrics in combination with gold yarns or other precious yarns.
In a short time sericulture began to spread also in the Byzantine Empire of Justinian I. It seems that between 527 and 565 AD. the emperor encouraged two monks to steal cocoons from the East during their travels. Whether this is true or not, sericulture took hold in Persia, supported by the fact that there was a variant of Mulberry there that the silkworms were able to eat. It was the Black Mulberry, also typical of Italy and the Mediterranean basin.
Silk fabric with the winning charioteer, Byzantium, VIII century
During the twelfth century, Italian weaving manufacturers began to contend the supremacy of the Islamics. Due to the Mongol invasions, a temporary decline began in the textile production in Asia Minor, Syria and Persia. Italy had to start providing luxurious fabrics by itself and it was in Lucca that the Italian textile industry was born, here silk from the sericulture practiced in Lombardy was also processed.
In the Como area, the birth of the manufacturing sector dates back to the late Middle Ages and concerned only the weaving of wool.
At first, the weaving of woolen clothes on horizontal looms was a domestic activity just for self-consumption. Each family provided for itself to produce the necessary clothes.
Como was in a strategic geographical point: it was a busy passageway between the Mediterranean and central Europe and it was rich in hydraulic energy.
Between the 11th and 13th centuries, there was an increase in the importance of Como's wool production.
The clothes produced in Como were made with both local and imported raw materials. They were simple, solid-colored, well-made products, appreciated above all for their excellent quality and good price. The merchant-entrepreneur commissioned to the artisans the amount of fabric they needed. These clothes were collected in Milan where it was possible to conclude exchanges with merchants from every country.
Trompe-l'œil fresco with mulberry Tree, “Sala delle asse”, 1497, Milan, Castello Sforzesco
Silk, imported from China, appears on the Larian territory in the sixteenth century, the official beginning of silk processing in Como dates back to August 1554, and it is precisely on the network of artisans described above that silk weaving began.
During the 18th century, the silk factory had its first expansion involving all sectors of the supply chain.
Tiny productive activities in the country-side were in charge of the silk reeling. On the other hand spinning and weaving were urban activities. In Como in 1769, 15 firms had got 229 looms. The figure of the merchant-trader was replaced by the entrepreneur-producer who revived the orders, bought the yarn and marketed the product.
The definitive transition from traditional manufacture to industry took place during the nineteenth century. Jacquard looms appeared and were used in order to produce worked silks. The companies reorganized themselves according to modern industry principles. Some of them even managed to control all stages of production.
Almost everywhere at the end of the century the factory organization replaced the old home production structure. This type of organization affected the workers (who saw their wages drastically decrease) and the landscape (a crown of industrial settlements surrounded the historic center of the city).
From then on, hand looms were mostly used for the production of fine fabrics, while the mechanical ones, which required more workers to function, were used to produce simple fabrics with solid colors.
In this context, the first schools for the training of qualified personnel were born.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, 82% of manual looms and 74% of mechanical looms from all over Italy were concentrated in Como.
After the slowdowns due to the world wars, the development of the district continued and the processing of silk was accompanied both with the processing of the first artificial fibers and also by the development of the chemical dyeing sector.
Production began to diversify: in addition to plain-colored fabrics, the first collaborative experiments between artists and factories were born to create refined productions. These elite printed and worked silk products will become the stars of Como's textile production since the 1960s.
Piatti factory Advertising, Nizzoli Evening dress made with printed silk, Marcello, 1926 Gianfranco Ferrè, f-w 1988-89
After the second world war, the typical production of the Como district is represented by screen printing, a process that was imported from Lyon in the 1920s. The representative garment of this excellence is the screen-printed foulard made with silk twill rigorously hand-hemmed.
To make them, it is necessary to start reworking the original painting/drawing in order to divide all the colors and create a dedicated drawing and screen for each of them. The screen is nothing but a rectangular frame to which a sifter, made of cloth with a very thick weave, is fixed. The dye paste is pressed through the cloth with a blade, known as “doctor”, wherever it has not been shielded by an impermeable substance. And so on for all the screens that make up the drawing. Depending on the design, it may be necessary to use more than 20 overlapping frames. The more the complexity of the design and the number of colors increase, the more complex and laborious the realization of the final print will be.
Emilio Pucci at work
Starting from tomorrow morning I will slip on my neck, as usual, the silk scarf that I love so much and with it I will bring with me a carousel of events, legends, works of art and characters and they’ll look like home.
Rodin A., La Lezione Dell’Antico, Milano, Abscondita, 2007
Bussagli M., Michel T., Pommier S., Mainguy C., Arte Del Tessere, Roma, Editalia, 1987
Bianchi C., Cani F., Geraci E., Masciadri Lai B., Masciadri D., Il Museo Didattico Della Seta, Nodo Libri, Como, 2003
Rosina M., Francina C., Cachemire, Il Segno In Movimento, Nodo Libri, Como, 2016
Kassia St Clair, La Trama Del Mondo, I Tessuti Che Hanno Fatto La Storia, Utet, Novara, 2019
https://www.vogue.it/moda/article/elizabeth-taylor-costumi-cleopatra-storia-foto - Cleopatra movie, 1963
https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shroud_of_Charlemagne_manufactured_in_Constantinople_814.jpg - Silk fabric with the winning charioteer, Byzantium, VIII century
https://www.succodarte.com/tour-virtuale-al-castello-sforzesco-la-sala-delle-asse/#iLightbox[gallery_image_1]/2 - “Sala delle asse”, 1497, Milan, Castello Sforzesco
https://archiviostorico.fondazionefiera.it/oggetti/41756-pubblicita-scialli-piatti - Piatti factory Advertising, Nizzoli Marcello, 1926
https://www.amica.it/gallery/gianfranco-ferre-i-bozzetti-in-mostra-a-cremona/?item=2 - Evening dress made with printed silk, Gianfranco Ferrè, f-w 1988-89
https://www.amica.it/gallery/gianfranco-ferre-i-bozzetti-in-mostra-a-cremona/?item=2 - Emilio Pucci at work
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