Centuries of Silk - Sericulture in Como, Italy

By Gani, Martin | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Centuries of Silk - Sericulture in Como, Italy


Gani, Martin, The World and I


Half the credit should go to a domesticated, blind butterfly that scientists call Bombyx mori," said Diego Masciadri, curator of the Museum of Silk in Como, Italy. "Without it we wouldn't have silk, the illustrious raw material used here in Como to create works of art."

The museum is part of an establishment aptly named the Setificio (silk factory). It educates and trains Como's silk artisans of the future. Masciadri proudly took me from room to room. On display are nineteenth- and early twentieth-century handlooms, other machines, and tools for reeling, dyeing, and printing the woven fabrics. The curator explained how silk fabrics are created, describing the cultivation of silkworms, harvesting of cocoons, weaving of threads, dyeing, and printing.

The museum devotes ample space to the history of sericulture in the city and surrounding region. Como identifies itself with silk manufacturing at its best. Silk has brought the city worldwide fame and the townspeople wealth and pride. "Did you know that the tie Bill Clinton wore on the day he became president came from Como?" Masciadri asked.

"I had no idea," I said.

"Probably Clinton was in good company," he continued. "Many of the high-fashion silk accessories and sensuously rustling clothes worn at his victory celebrations most likely originated in Como, too."

"I had no idea," I said again.

Today, numerous fashion designers around the globe commission silk from Como. Within the city and its environs, some 2,400 highly specialized firms are involved in the industry. Though very large companies, like Ratti and Mantero, have their own textile designers and factories for weaving, dyeing, and printing, most companies deal with just one of the stages that ultimately lead to the creation of expensive silk products.

How is a silk artwork created, I wondered. Masciadri's soothing voice patiently recounted the process. "As I said, the credit goes first to Bombyx mori. It lays the eggs that produce the silkworms." He went on to explain that, although some 500 wild varieties of caterpillars produce silk fibers, Bombyx is the most widely used. Compared to the wild varieties, the protein-rich filaments it ejects are more regular, rounded, and smooth. These filaments don't break easily or tangle, and they absorb dyes better. Bombyx is so resilient that one cocoon can yield a continuous strand over a thousand yards long. Such strands can bear considerable weight and are stronger than steel, he commented.

Masciadri explained that each silkworm, in its pupal stage, releases an enzyme to break the cocoon it has built around itself. Before it has a chance to do this, the cocoon is subjected to steam or hot air. This process kills the Bombyx and interrupts the cycle. The collected cocoons are washed in soap and water to get rid of the gummy substance that wraps around the fibers. Several filaments, depending on the thickness required, are then put together to render the threads robust enough for weaving, dyeing, and printing.

Designing for silk

As soon as I had left Masciadri, new questions arose in my head. What makes silk so shiny? How many cocoons are needed to make a tie or blouse? How many silkworms does it take to produce a given amount of silk? Are the threads dyed before the weaving process or after? Who is behind the motifs printed on the fabrics?

I quizzed Matteo Mottin, a Setificio graduate. He has more than a decade of experience in silk production. "Silk fibers are triangular," he responded, "and reflect light just like a prism. This gives silk its luxurious sheen and feel.

"It takes about 100--120 cocoons to make a tie, six times as many will be necessary for a blouse. More than 5,000 silkworms will be needed to produce a kilo of raw silk. For quality, threads should be dyed before weaving but not always. Crinkly crepe fabrics are woven first and dyed second for best results. …

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