The thing about experiences abroad looking back is it’s difficult to believe that they actually happened. It’s incredible to think that the tiny boot-shaped spot on your globe marked Italy is a real place you’ve really been and that it’s as fantastic as you had been told since before you could remember. That it’s out there still, beyond the walls of daily routine, is a strange thought.
An opportunity to focus on the creation and history of velvets of Italy was as wonderful as it was surreal. Much of the tour was focused on visiting the last bastions of Italian hand-woven production; seeing their processes, understanding their histories and meeting the people who have diligently worked to keep this great tradition alive.
It was at Fondazione Lisio that we had the opportunity to examine velvets of antiquity and contemporary pieces developed by students of the foundation.
Every stop we made involved getting to see hand-weaving in action by weavers specially trained in the weaving of velvets on hand-powered jacquard looms.
Cloth production at this level requires lengthy apprenticeship and the kind of personality able to focus on remaining mechanically consistent for extended periods of time. The world of luxury fabrics is a world of perfection. Every flick of the wrist, every beat of the fabric and every one of those four-hundred bobbins must be consistent and in order. Any mistakes or irregularities, particularly in velvet production, are evident to the most inexperienced eye. If there was anything to be understood through our encounters with the workshops, it is that velvet weaving is not for the feint of heart.
As if the exploration of luxury textiles were not enough to keep the tour interesting, there was a different theme in tandem with our studies: how these businesses have responded and adapted to a world where you can throw away and replace almost anything. When most people opt to buy shirts for less than 5 dollars who would buy a yard of fabric for more than 1,200? Some of these businesses have become centers of learning (Fondazione Lisio), others have invested in industrial production but keep the hand-woven factory as well, and several spend more resources on creating and maintaining relationships with their niche clientele. Most of the hand-weaving is commission-based with orders coming from historical foundations, royalty, churches, and sometimes fashion and interior designers. Runway pieces often use the best material on the market, and this often means commissioning their velvet yardage. Until seen in person, the vast difference in quality between figured machine-made velvets and hand-woven velvets is unimaginable.
By Emma Sawyer