In a quiet corner of the bohemian neighborhood of San Frediano, hidden behind an 18th-century iron gate that opens onto a whimsical wisteria-covered alley, lies a Florentine cultural treasure: the Antico Setificio Fiorentinoor Antique Florentine Silk Mill, which has been producing precious textiles since 1786.
To enter through the large worn wooden door of the workshop is to go back in time and rediscover the enchantment and beauty of a more opulent era.
Inside, 18th- and 19th-century wooden and iron looms, some towering over 16 feet tall, clank furiously to the rhythm of tens of thousands of luminous silk threads, weaving warp threads and weft in sumptuous fabrics, guided by the skilled hands of a team of expert craftsmen.
Since arriving in Italy in 2003, I have become increasingly fascinated by the country’s very talented artisans, their intriguing workshops and the quality of their products, especially in the Tuscan capital of Florence.
When I first visited Antico Setificio Fiorentino in 2018 for a private event, I was captivated by the giant antique looms and the exquisite fabrics they produced. Their stories, I learned, were tied to Renaissance society.
There are approximately 200 historic fabric designs in the institution’s archives that 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; brocatelle by Corsini, Guicciardini and Principe Pio Savoia; and Doria damask, to name a few.
Many of these families practiced sericulture – the breeding of silkworms and the production of silk – and silk weaving in Florence at 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 in Tuscany flourished in the 14th century; the main production was in Lucca, although it soon spread to Florence, Venice and Genoa.
At the height of production, there were approximately 8,000 looms in operation in Florence. Today, only a handful remain, eight of which are in production at the Antico Setificio Fiorentino. (These 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 silk spinning is a machine called a warper, which prepares warp yarns for use on a loom. This particular warping machine, designed to work vertically, was built at the beginning of the 19th century, according to original drawings made by Leonardo da Vinci in 1485.
“We use it the way it was designed – hand-powered,” said Fabrizio Meucci, the workshop’s technician and restorer.
“It’s not just there for its beauty,” Mr Meucci added, describing the workshop as a “living, working mill that looks like a museum.”
It’s fascinating to watch Leonardo’s warping machine in motion, turning and perfectly aligning the warp threads of a row of whirling bobbins on the creel, which collects the precious threads. These warp yarns are then used to weave trimmings, ribbons, cords and braiding – used for everything from upholstery, furnishings, bed and bath linens to clothing and fashion accessories.
Dario Giachetti, a 30-year-old craftsman, has been working in the textile industry for 10 years and only recently joined the team of weavers at 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 finished product made from the 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, winding and winding the threads, creating from the cylindrical skein of yarn, then onto the spools, the warp yarns and finally, the looms.
The whole process takes time, and 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 patterns.
Other fabrics with thicker yarns – like Guicciardini brocatelle, for example, which is typically used for upholstery – can be produced faster, perhaps as much as six or seven feet per day.
Outside the walls of the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, the art of producing handmade textiles is largely dying out, said Mr. Meucci, the technician. Making industrial silk fabrics with modern machinery is faster, easier and cheaper. Most manufacturers cannot justify the expense.
But for Mr. Giachetti, the weaver, the end product encompasses much more than the technical processes involved in its creation. When he weaves, he tells me, he not only gives his time, but also his heart, his passion.
“You’re not just buying a fabric,” he said. “You also receive a part of my heart.”
“This is”, he added, “the real difference between an artisanal textile and an industrially produced textile”.