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UNDERSTANDING SILK HERITAGE

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Articles

Date de parution

19/12/2023

A FOCUS ON ITALY

Silk has always been present in human history, and the economic importance of the silkworm over the millennia is well known. Already thousands of years before Christ, silk was used in China as a writing material. Although the processing of silk is delicate, the fabric is indestructible to the point of being used to make bulletproof vests and parachutes. Sericulture: silk production technique, involves the rearing of the silkworm, from the egg stage to the completion of the cocoon, the treatment of the cocoon to create the thread and allow weaving. It is a technique that implies the cultivation of mulberry trees on which the silkworms feed themselves.

 When the silkworm ‘ascends to the wood’, it spins its cocoon like a burrow that envelops it; after which it turns into a chrysalis ‘like a pharaoh inside his sarcophagus’. It remains at the chrysalis level for 12-13 days then turns into a butterfly that lays eggs. 

Silkworms are valuable because they produce a very fine slime extract that is extracted from their cocoon once it has been placed in hot water after being dried. Twisting involves uniting the threads of several cocoons to create a unique silk yarn.

Mulberry tree, feeding silkworms

I. From Emperor Justinian to the European nations

The Romans had an enormous consumption of raw silk. Sericulture spread across Europe from the 6th century onwards following the import of silkworms by Emperor Justinian in 553. The Emperor’s importation allowed for the development of a valuable type of silk as it came from annual ‘monofilament’ silkworm breeds. Once laid by the butterfly, the eggs of these breeds had to be kept for several months before hatching. In India and the Orient, other, wilder types

of silkworms were used.
Once the silk thread was extracted from the cocoon of that breed, it could be made so long that the weaving process was easier. Sericulture became more and more widespread, the weaving and processing of yarn developed and reached high levels of production. In the 12th century, sericulture and silk production reached Sicily and Calabria and spread throughout Europe.

SILK Vittorio Veneto
From left to right: Marson Bacological Institute of Vittorio Veneto / Manifesto of the Marson Bacological Institute with imprints from Asia /Manifesto depicting 'Two monks gave Emperor Justinian the seed of the silkworm'.

In the mid-19th century it reached a truly remarkable development. Half of the world’s quantity of raw silk was supplied from Asia, and the other half from Europe. As far as raw silk processing was concerned, France undoubtedly held the supremacy, to the point that Lyon became the world capital of silk fabrics, employing over fifty thousand workers. 

The Italian peninsula was considered the world’s second largest producer of silk thread after China; the Lombardo-Veneto Kingdom and the Kingdom of Sardinia had silk as their leading export product.

II. The silkworm crisis of 1850

Silk worms

In the middle of the 19th century, just when the silk industry had taken on enormous economic importance, there was a crisis that severely affected the entire textile sector and destroyed silkworm breeding throughout Europe. An epidemic, pebrine, struck silkworms, disrupting the entire economic framework of the cocoon-producing countries, in particular the states of the Italian peninsula, the French Midi and the southern regions of the Austrian Empire. The drastic drop in cocoon production brought all stages of the silk industry to its knees. 

This crisis led to a remarkable increase in the trade of the English East India Company, which extended as far as China to supply Europe with raw silk. With the pebrine, cocoon production was reduced to a tenth of what it was. The British East India Company benefited enormously from the expansion of the pebrine epidemic in Europe. Thanks to its Asian colonial possessions it could guarantee the supply of raw silk to Europe. It would take a full 20 years to overcome the pebrine crisis. 

Illustration of Pebrine

III. Several destinations for silk

a. The bacological establishments : silk as the monetary base of the Italian state 

The genetic breeds of silkworms imported by Emperor Justinian into Europe had reached such a level of perfection (as opposed to those from Japan 

or India) that they created a type of raw silk that was quoted on the stock exchange every day to form the monetary basis of the state. 

STABILIMENTO BACOLOGICO
Marson Bacological Establishment
RAW SILK
Raw Silk

For this reason, and in order not to be dependent on importing ‘seed worms’ from Asia, it became urgent to overcome the pebrinE problem. European governments pushed the scientific world to find a solution. The French ‘Pasteur’ method of microscopic analysis of breeding butterflies was adopted, which necessitated the creation of a real industry with bacological establishments in which certified healthy butterfly eggs would be selected. 

Raw silk thus began to be produced by bacological factories where worms arrived that were intended for breeding and not for the manufacture of silk for weaving. In these bacological factories, the entire evolution of the silkworm was monitored so that the moment when the silkworm transformed from larva into chrysalis could be captured and the 10-12 day countdown within which the eggs were laid could be monitored.

Microscopes at the Bacological Establishment to implement the Pasteur method
Microscopes at the Bacological Establishment to implement the Pasteur method

For political reasons, only a small part of this raw silk produced in Italy was allocated to Italian industries and the spinners in Como. The rest was not used in Italy but sold in the United States and Northern Europe. 

This allowed Italy to conduct transactions with other states that would supplement the Italian state’s monetary base. Raw silk continued to be Italy’s leading export item for about 100 years (from the Restoration to World War I).

silk
Archive photo of work at the Marson Bacological Establishment

b. Spinning: Silk as the basis of excellent textile craftsmanship that continues to this day

Como became a key city for silk processing from the 16th century onwards. Silk was twisted, spun, dyed. Thus, in a typical weaving factory, one could find tools useful for the various stages of silk garment production: twisting plants, hand looms, warping machines. 

For finishing, the silk was sent to workshops dedicated to the production of finished garments: chemical laboratories, dye works, printing works, where the ‘Moiré effect’ could be imprinted on the silk.

In the 20th century, the raw silk business gradually began to decline with the introduction of rayon as an artificial and cheaper alternative to silk. The sale of raw silk was no longer sufficient to ensure the survival of the industry. 

Moreover, as time went by, the number of companies supplying raw silk continued to decline as market demand turned to the fabric design stages of dyeing and printing

Raw silk

IV. The conservation of the silk heritage

Competition from Asian silks and the transformation of the Italian agricultural reality have led to a progressive decrease in the demand for silkworm seed, until the closure of the silk factories in the late 1990s. 

Today, silk is produced where the mulberry tree grows on a continuous cycle (tropical areas of India, China, other Asian countries or Brazil) so that more annual harvests can be realised and consequently the yield of agricultural and industrial investments can be maximised.

Despite progress and the decline of skilled labour, the preservation of the silk heritage persists today thanks to various craft enterprises throughout Italy. The small enterprises of Como boast world 

 leadership in the silk sector in the production of ties and scarves. In all these enterprises, half the employees are engaged in weaving silk yarn, another half in finishing the fabrics and the remainder in making the articles.

The Silk Experimental Station, a public economic body located in Como and dedicated to applied study on behalf of companies was established in 1923. In 1995, La Fondazione del Setificio was established to promote the training of young people with skills for the

silk industry.
Finally, initiatives as SILKNOW.EU , MINGEI PROJECT make it possible for the silkwork industry to endure and not to forget this centuries-old, economic and cultural heritage at European level.

Sources

MARSON Ettore, Una pagina inedita della ricerca. Il seme bachi sano e l’industria bacologica, 2011

COLOMBO Paolo, La Grande Europa dei Mestieri d’Arte, 2007

https://www.museivittorioveneto.it/museo_del_baco_da_seta/museo/centro.html 
https://www.museosetacomo.com/museo.php?lang_id=1

Acknowledgements

Special thanks go to Ettore and Pia Marson who welcomed Alessandra Ribera d’Alcalà (Mad’in Europe) for a visit to the Marson Bacological Institute in Vittorio Veneto and an in-depth interview.

Entrance of Marson Bacological Establishment

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