In a quiet corner of the bohemian San Frediano district, hidden behind an 18th-century iron gate that opens onto a whimsical wisteria-covered alley, lies a Florentine cultural treasure: the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, or Old Florentine Silk Mill. , which has been producing precious textiles since 1786.
Entering through the large weathered wooden door of the workshop is to step back in time and revisit the charm and beauty of a more opulent age.
Inside, 18th- and 19th-century wood and iron looms, some over 16 feet tall, clatter furiously to the rhythm of tens of thousands of luminous silk threads, weaving warp and weft threads into sumptuous fabrics, guided by the skillful hands of a select team of expert craftsmen.
Since moving to Italy in 2003, I have been increasingly fascinated by the country’s highly talented artisans, their fascinating workshops and the quality of their products, especially in the Tuscan capital of Florence.
When I first visited the Antico Setificio Fiorentino in 2018 for a private event, I was mesmerized by the gigantic ancient looms and the exquisite fabrics they produced. I learned that their stories were intertwined with Renaissance society.
There are over 200 historic fabric designs in the institution’s archive that have been passed down from generation to generation. Some bear the names and designs of the Italian and European monarchy and nobility: the lamps of Princess Mary of England; the brocatelle by Corsini, Guicciardini and Principe Pio Savoia; and Doria damask, to name just a few.
Many of these families practiced sericulture (silkworm farming and silk production) and silk weaving in Florence during the time of the House of Medici, which came to power in the 15th century.
Silk was introduced to Italy by Catholic missionaries working in China around the year 1100. The art of silk weaving and sericulture flourished in Tuscany in the 14th century; the main production was in Lucca, although it soon expanded to Florence, Venice and Genoa.
At the peak of production, there were around 8,000 looms in operation in Florence. Only a handful of those remain today, eight of which are in production at the Antico Setificio Fiorentino. (Those eight looms were donated by noble families in the 1700s.) In total, the mill houses 12 looms, including the latest semi-mechanical machines.
At the heart of the silk factory is a machine called a warper, which prepares warp threads for use on a loom. This particular warper, designed to operate vertically, was built in the early 19th century, based on original drawings made by Leonardo da Vinci in 1485.
“We use it the way it was designed: powered by hand,” said Fabrizio Meucci, the workshop technician and restorer.
“It’s not just there for its beauty,” Meucci added, describing the workshop as a “living, working mill that looks like a museum.”
It is fascinating to see Leonardo’s warping machine in motion, turning and perfectly aligning the warp threads on a row of spinning spools in the basket, which collects the precious threads. These warp threads are then used to weave trims, ribbons, cords, and braids, which are used for everything from upholstery, furniture, and bed and bath linens to clothing and fashion accessories.
Dario Giachetti, a 30-year-old craftsman, has been working in the textile industry for the last 10 years and only recently joined the team of weavers at the Antico Setificio Fiorentino.
“There is 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 is magical to see the finished product made from raw materials.
“You can 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 dyeing stages, the rolling and coiling of the threads, the creation of the cylindrical shape. skein of thread, then to bobbins, to warp threads, and finally to looms.
The whole process takes time, and hand knitting in particular is very time consuming. It can take an entire day to produce just 15 inches of a fabric like damask, with its intricate patterns.
Other fabrics with thicker yarns, like Guicciardini brocatelle, for example, which is typically used for upholstery, can be produced more quickly, perhaps as much as six or seven feet in a day.
Outside the walls of the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, the art of producing handmade textiles is largely fading, said Meucci, the technician. Making industrial silk fabrics with modern machines is faster, easier and cheaper. Most manufacturers can’t justify the expense.
But for Giachetti the weaver, the final product encompasses much more than the technical processes involved in its creation. When he knits, he told me, he brings not only his time, but also his heart, his passion.
“You’re not just buying a fabric,” he said. “You are also receiving a piece of my heart.”
“That,” he added, “is the real difference between an artisanal textile and one made industrially.”
Susan Wright is an Australian photographer based in Italy, where she has lived since 2003. You can follow her work at Instagram.