In a quiet corner of the bohemian district of San Frediano, hidden behind an 18th-century iron gate that opens onto a whimsical wisteria-covered alleyway, lies a Florentine cultural treasure: the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, or Antique Florentine Silk Mill, which has been producing precious textiles since 1786.
To enter through the atelier’s large, worn timber door is to slide back through time and revisit the enchantment and great thing about a more opulent era.
Inside, 18th- and Nineteenth-century timber and iron looms, some towering over 16 feet tall, clatter furiously in rhythm with tens of hundreds of luminous silk threads, weaving warp and weft yarns into sumptuous fabrics, guided by the expert hands of a select team of expert artisans.
Since moving to Italy in 2003, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated with the country’s highly talented artisans, their intriguing workshops and the standard of their products, particularly within the Tuscan capital of Florence.
After I first visited the Antico Setificio Fiorentino in 2018 for a personal event, I used to be captivated by the enormous ancient looms and the exquisite fabrics they produced. Their histories, I learned, were entwined with Renaissance society.
There are around 200 historical fabric designs within the institution’s archive which have been passed down through generations of families. Some bear the names and designs of Italian and European monarchy and nobility: the lampas of Princess Mary of England; the brocatelle of Corsini, Guicciardini and Principe Pio Savoia; and the damask of Doria, to call only just a few.
Lots of these families practiced sericulture — the raising of silkworms and the production of silk — and silk weaving in Florence in the course of the era of the House of Medici, which rose to power within the fifteenth century.
Silk was introduced to Italy by Catholic missionaries working in China across the yr 1100. The art of silk weaving and sericulture in Tuscany flourished within the 14th century; the major production was in Lucca, though it soon expanded to Florence, Venice and Genoa.
At peak production, there have been around 8,000 looms operating in Florence. Today only a handful of those remain, eight of that are in production within the Antico Setificio Fiorentino. (Those eight looms were donated by noble families within the 1700s.) In total, the mill houses 12 looms, including the newer semi-mechanical machines.
At the guts of the silk mill is a machine called a warper, which prepares warp yarns for use on a loom. This particular warper, designed to operate vertically, was inbuilt the early Nineteenth century, in line with original drawings made by Leonardo da Vinci in 1485.
“We use it in the way in which that it was designed — powered by hand,” said Fabrizio Meucci, the technician and restorer on the workshop.
“It’s not only there for its beauty,” Mr. Meucci added, describing the workshop as a “living and dealing mill that appears like a museum.”
It’s mesmerizing to look at Leonardo’s warper machine in motion, spinning and perfectly aligning warp threads from a row of twirling spools onto the creel, which gathers the dear threads. These warp threads are then used to weave trims, ribbons, cords and braiding — used for every thing from upholstery, furnishings, and bed and bath linens to fashion clothes and niknaks.
Dario Giachetti, a 30-year-old artisan, has been working within the textile industry for the past 10 years and only recently joined the team of weavers on the Antico Setificio Fiorentino.
“There may be a lot to learn and comprehend in a spot like this — even for someone like me, with my level of experience,” he said, adding that it’s magical to see the finished product realized from the raw materials.
“You actually get to see the material grow and are available to life,” he said, describing the method from start to complete — from the pure silk fibers to the tinting stages, the winding and spooling of the threads, the creation of the cylindrically shaped skein of yarn, then on to the bobbins, the warp threads after which, finally, the looms.
All the process takes time, and hand weaving particularly may be very slow. It might take a complete day to supply just 15 inches of a material like damask, with its intricate designs.
Other fabrics with thicker threads — corresponding to the brocatelle Guicciardini, for instance, which is usually used for upholstery — might be produced more quickly, perhaps as much as six or seven feet in a day.
Outside the partitions of the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, the art of manufacturing handmade textiles is basically vanishing, Mr. Meucci, the technician, said. Making industrial silk fabrics with modern machines is quicker, easier and cheaper. Most manufacturers can’t justify the expense.
But for Mr. Giachetti, the weaver, the ultimate product encompasses so far more than simply the technical processes involved in its creation. When he weaves, he told me, he supplies not only his time, but in addition his heart, his passion.
“You aren’t just buying a material,” he said. “You might be also receiving a component of my heart.”
“This,” he added, “is the true difference between an artisanal textile and one made industrially.”