Italian handcrafts: Ascoli Piceno Lace
- WTI Magazine #167 Sep 23, 2023
Textile weaving with vegetable fibres (especially silk) and wool has been a fundamentally important activity in the Piceno area for centuries. Almost all rural homes had at least one loom, around which the women would be engaged in spinning, warping, weaving, tailoring and embroidery. Complete bridal trousseaux were made at home, as well as dresses, blankets, tablecloths and all other personal clothing and home furnishings.
The most flourishing period was from the middle ages until the 17th century. Every town had several tailoring shops, and even noble ladies and the nuns in the numerous convents devoted their time to embroidery work. Mulberry trees were grown in Ascoli for the production of silk from the fifteenth century, although this activity did not reach its peak until the 19th and 20th century.
Like elsewhere in Italy, the tradition of embroidery and lace in the province of Ascoli Piceno is linked to the presence of wealthy families who could live in luxury and elegance, not only in regard to decoration, but also in the use of precious materials and items: it was said, in fact, that “embroidery is to the body as style is to thought”.
With the attainment of greater purchasing power, there was a need for young women professionally trained in the art of embroidery, so in 1868, Countess Maddalena Sgariglia dal Monte opened a women’s vocational school in a building she owned.
The poor were admitted for free, whereas girls from wealthy family paid for room and board. The girls became experts in dressmaking and embroidery and, thanks to the Countess’ contacts, the finished products were sold through commissions from important families throughout Italy and orders from church maintenance committees, religious fraternities and secular societies for the embroidery of church decorations, banners, coats of arms and bridal trousseaux.
In those years, being a good seamstress and embroiderer was an essential prerequisite for a “good housewife”. In fact, this work is almost never mentioned in the official documents of the time as it was done within the walls of the home and almost always for the benefit of family and relatives.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, female sartorial activity became very intense, especially in the cities, with a consequent proliferation of handicraft workshops throughout the province, making evening gowns, day dresses and formalwear decorated, according to the fashion of the time, with embroidery and lace.
Bridal trousseaux were also made, followed by baptismal accoutrements and those for newborn babies, used in noble families, which included embroidered sheets, covers and an assortment of tiny gowns.
Until the mid 18th century, church accoutrements of great value were also embroidered, using the beaten gold technique: a very ancient technique consisting of braided gold and silver threads applied to fabric. Over the course of the 20th century, hand-woven textile production, together with the production of clothing, gradually became an industry. Artisanal weaving activities continued, however, particularly in relation to the production of tailored and quality garments, made entirely by hand.
When lace is mentioned, it is in reference to “tombolo di Offida” (Offida bobbin lace), an ancient tradition brought to this area by Benedictine nuns from Cluny in the late 16th century. Still today, during the summer, you can often come across small groups of women making bobbin lace as they chat together, in the narrow streets of the town.
Looms were a constant feature in the province of Ascoli Piceno. They were usually pedal-operated handlooms with few heddles, made by hand, either at home or in the village carpenter’s workshop, using oak for the feet, light walnut for the housing and poplar.
This widely practised weaving was integrated with the local share cropping farming system, which produced silk, hemp and flax, and so rural houses often became small factory units scattered around the fields, whose products were brought to the town markets together with the produce of the fields.
The textiles produced were simple and for ordinary use, whereas the damask fabrics produced on huge Jacquard looms did not appear until the start of the 19th-century, with the work of the highly skilled “Monachette” (little nuns), a convent workshop in the Papal State that wove liturgical vestments for churches and prelates.
The “liccetti” weaving technique was commonly used between the 13th and the 14th century, involving the insertion of a small, thin rod to build a manual weaving pattern, similar to the pick-up sticks in modern looms.
Each decorative motif was attached to these hanging “liccetti”, connected to the warp by a special procedure, which practically made it a permanent weaving pattern, marking the transition from the traditional heddle loom to the jacquard loom, with its punched cards, which began to operate at the start of the 19th century.
The designs were set up on the loom using a series of strings, which allowed the simultaneous lowering of a series of warp threads corresponding to the desired decorative motif. The earliest designs were produced for the borders of altar cloths. Weaving also developed due to the variety of different locally produced materials, which included wool, cotton, linen and silk.
From the 14th century, the best craftsmen from the peninsula began to converge in the Piceno area, known throughout Italy as a major manufacturing area, where they would introduce new systems and practices.
Silk reeling and spinning, for example, were the main activities of the silk industry: in 1865 the area had 12 spinning mills, four of which were powered by steam. These products were destined for the market squares of Turin, Genoa, Milan, Lyon and Marseille. As many as 1,252 looms for flax and hemp were recorded in an 1862 survey on industrial conditions in the province of Ascoli Piceno.
By Camera di Commercio di Ascoli Piceno with Unioncamere