Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Lake Como and the silk industry

My trip to Lake Como was a great success with beautiful weather every single day and lots of medieval frescoes to study.  Before I went to Como I had no idea that it was famous for its silk production but we were lucky enough to be given a tour of the Silk Museum which is prviately run and squashed into the basement of a polytechnic.  The Lake Como area began producing silk in the fifteenth century.  There was already a thriving woollen industry in Piedmont and this had spread to Como but by the fifteenth century there was intense competition for wool productaion from Northern Europe. The Como area had plenty of water to use for the mills and mulberries grew in the Po valley so they were able to swop from wool to silk production.  I found some interesting comparisons with the woollen industry in the Pennines.  Many of the mills were originally situated in small  remote alpine villages and the museum's collection of looms reminded me of the mills I used to visit in Lancashire and West Yorkshire as part of my job in the late 1970s.  The museum has collected these old looms and other machines and brought them down to Como in pieces.  It must have been quite a job.

As with the wool barons here, the silk merchants grew very rich and built themselves beautiful houses, both in Como city and as villas on the shores of the lake.

This house is now a bank.  It still has wonderful plaster entrance porches with patterns taken from the silk designs.

We saw a number of houses like this. There are also the remains of many large silk factories around the suburbs.  It was interesting being in Como in September because of the proximity of Milan fashion week.  Apart from a few extremely stylish visitors who I suspect were having the weekend in Como, the TV news was full of the fashion shows.

After weaving silk for many years, the Como area moved into dyeing and printing after the second world war and that is what remains.  This began with jacquard production, using punch cards and designs on squared paper.  In about 1979 I taught English in a small Courtaulds factory in South London where they had just introduced this kind of machinery to produce woollen fabric.  (Pretty ugly it was too.)  It all came back to me when I saw the machines.  Jacquard braid and trimmings are apparently still produced in Piedmont but Como moved over to printing.  The filament is now all produced in China.  We were shown a variety of printing methods: really old blocks, silk screens, traditional rollers and modern rollers which are much lighter.  The museum also has a 'chemistry lab' and a a 'physics lab' with old equipment.  It is all very interesting and quite familiar in some ways to textile people.

The museum is part of a school doing foundation diplomas in weaving, chemistry and design.  It is trying hard to secure proper funding so that it can move to better premises.  At the moment it is only open to school groups and special parties (I was on an Art History tour with a company called Art Pursuits and given the lack of air conditioning in the basement, it will be much better if it does manage to find better premises!

It seems the souvenir of choice from Como is a silk scarf or tie.  I bought a linen scarf (will take a photo of it.) It came from a posh tourist shop but I have to confess that I have never liked what I think of as Hermes style printed silk squares and that seemed to be the main thing on offer.  I was not tempted which was probably just as well given the prices.

I took lots of photos of art details but did not find Como particularly photogenic.  Here is a sample and I will do another posting about some of the things we saw once I have edited the photos.

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