In a quiet corner of the bohemian neighborhood of San Frediano, hidden behind an 18th-century iron gate that opens onto a whimsical alleyway covered in wisteria, lies a Florentine cultural treasure: the Old Florentine Silk Factoryor antique Florentine silk mill, producing precious textiles since 1786.
Entering through the large, worn-out wooden door of the studio, you will step back in time and relive the enchantment and beauty of a more opulent era.
Inside, 18th- and 19th-century wooden and iron looms, some over 5 meters high, rattle furiously to the beat of tens of thousands of luminescent silk threads, weaving warp and weft yarns into sumptuous fabrics, guided by the skilled hands of a select group. team of expert craftsmen.
Since moving to Italy in 2003, I have been increasingly fascinated by the country’s highly talented artisans, their intriguing workshops and the quality of their products, especially in the Tuscan capital of Florence.
When I first visited the Antico Setificio Fiorentino for a private event in 2018, I was fascinated by the gigantic old looms and the beautiful fabrics they produced. Their history, I learned, was intertwined with Renaissance society.
There are approximately 200 historical fabric designs in the institution’s archives that have been passed down through generations of families. Some bear the names and designs of the Italian and European monarchy and nobility: the lampas of Princess Mary of England; the brocatelle of Corsini, Guicciardini and Principe Pio Savoia; and Doria’s damask, just to name a few.
Many of these families practiced sericulture – raising silkworms and producing silk – and silk weaving in Florence during the era of the House of Medici, which came to power in the 15th century.
Silk was introduced to Italy around the year 1100 by Catholic missionaries working in China. The art of silk weaving and sericulture in Tuscany flourished in the 14th century; the main production was in Lucca, although it soon expanded to Florence, Venice and Genoa.
At the height of production, there were about 8,000 looms in Florence. Today, only a handful of these remain, eight of which are in production at the Antico Setificio Fiorentino. (Those eight looms were donated by noble families in the 18th century.) In total, the mill houses 12 looms, including the more recent semi-mechanical machines.
At the heart of the silk factory is a machine called a chainsaw that prepares warp yarns for use on a loom. This particular warper, designed to work vertically, was built in the early 1800s, according to original drawings made by Leonardo da Vinci in 1485.
“We use it the way it was designed—hand-powered,” says Fabrizio Meucci, the workshop technician and restorer.
“It’s not just there for its beauty,” added Mr. Meucci, describing the workshop as a “living and working mill that looks like a museum.”
It is mesmerizing to see Leonardo’s shaving machine in motion, spinning and perfectly aligned warp threads from a row of spinning spools on the rack, collecting the precious threads. These warp threads are then used to weave embellishments, ribbons, cords and braids – used for everything from upholstery, furniture and bed and bath linen to fashion clothing and accessories.
Dario Giachetti, a 30-year-old craftsman, has been working in the textile industry for 10 years and only recently joined the weaving team of the Antico Setificio Fiorentino.
“There’s so much to learn and understand in a place like this — even for someone like me, with my level of experience,” he said, adding that it’s magical to see the final product realized with the raw materials.
“You really see the fabric grow and come to life,” he said, describing the process from start to finish – from the pure silk fibers to the coloring phases, winding and winding the threads, creating the cylindrically shaped strand of yarn. , then on the bobbins, the warp threads and then, finally, the looms.
The whole process takes time, and the hand weaving in particular is very slow. It can take an entire day to produce just 15 inches of a fabric like damask, with its intricate designs.
Other fabrics with thicker threads — such as the brocatelle Guicciardini, for example, which is usually used for upholstery — can be produced more quickly, perhaps six or seven feet a day.
Outside the walls of the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, the art of making handmade textiles is largely disappearing, said technician Meucci. Making industrial silk fabrics with modern machines is faster, easier and cheaper. Most manufacturers cannot justify the cost.
But for Mr. Giachetti, the weaver, the final product involves so much more than just the technical processes involved in making it. When he weaves, he told me, he is not only delivering his time, but also his heart, his passion.
“You don’t just buy any fabric,” he said. “You also get a piece of my heart.”
“This,” he added, “is the real difference between an artisan textile and an industrially made one.”