The Silk Fever
by Francesca Giommi, Manuel Vaquero Piῆeiro
Crushed by an unforgiving international competition, Umbria gave up on the production of silk and focused on sericulture instead: today only an echo of the white silkworms chomping tirelessly on the mulberry leaves remains.
For centuries, wearing silk garments was an exclusive prerogative of the nobility and the wealthy. Goods made of silk, as in the case of other luxury goods, contributed to the social divide and to the distinction in social class.
The silk fever
This radically changed in the beginning of the Eighteenth century, when consumption became less selective. With the desire to imitate the fashion of the great European courts, the shades and patterns of silk cloths began to dominate the wardrobes of the emerging social classes (merchants, government officials, middle class), who also felt obliged to respect social etiquette and show off their status through appearance.
The baroque era introduced new clothes also among men, like stockings, handkerchiefs, vests, undergarments, blouses – all rigorously made out of silk. Though not everyone had the means to buy the best silk imported from oriental Asia, the newly-born fashion industry embraced the silk fever infecting Europe and its colonies as a powerful launching pad. For manufacturing, some European cities such as Lyon and London were especially favored, becoming industrial capitals of silk in the European continent.
The Italian regions, following the general fashion, found space within the silk production chain, whether choosing to work in the delicate phase of silk thread making, or in the agricultural operations of breeding the bombyx mori – the silkworm – on which the whole production depends upon, from raw material to finished product. The region of Umbria too, promptly became part of this new dynamic trade.
In the middle ages, everyone admired the famous silk veils of Perugia, cloths of exceptional quality, made with silk thread imported mostly from the southern regions of Italy. The silk manufacturers in Perugia, crushed by the international competition, were hit by a crisis during the modern age. When in the 1700s the demand for silk rose again, unlike in the past, Umbria began to produce the raw material. To describe the magnitude of the change running throughout the region, it suffices to notice the suddenly increasing mentions of mulberry tree cultivations in the historical documents. The mulberry leaves are the only viable nutrition when breeding the silkworm, a delicate and special creature. The Umbrian landscape was suddenly filled with mulberries: along roads and boulevards, in private gardens, by the farmhouses, in the olive groves, until it became widespread and familiar. A tree imported all the way from Asia largely contributed to today’s Umbrian landscape’s colors. As an example, the estate of Casalina (near Deruta), owned by the monastery of St. Peter, counted around 10.000 trees. The mulberries grew by the same number as the silkworms, in the attempt to satisfy the growing international demand. The French court and the Papacy encouraged sericulture, setting the groundwork for an economic development in a more industrial fashion.
Silkworm breeding yesterday and today
To this day, the diffusion of the mulberry trees in the rural landscape of Umbria may be easily retraced. Unfortunately, a large number of specimens have been eradicated or barbarically cut down, yet in many cases some still stand with their beautiful and rich foliage, especially in the summer months. It is a tree that though it has lost in time its original purpose – that of guaranteeing a constant replenishment of leaves to feed the silkworm and cocoon – remains the symbol of an era and of the intense economic endeavor for the many farmers’ families involved in the breeding of silkworms.
As the cocoons grew – from one larval age to the other – not only did the consumption of leaves increase, but also the demand for ever larger spaces, until entire rooms, carefully environmentally controlled, were occupied. The most ventilated and well heated rooms in the premises became silkworm nurseries, with stoves and thermometers to control the temperature. At times built as towers, these structures have also contributed to shaping the rural landscape of Umbria: they are the architectonic testament of an economic reality, which in time, has found profound changes
During the summer months, from May to August, everyone in the family would work to replenish the leaf supply – which needed to be fresh and moist-free – clean the trellises to avoid infections, select the best specimens and harvest the ripe cocoons before the chrysalis pierced the protective casing, made of one single extremely thin continuous thread of a length comprised between 300 and 1000 meters. For the distinctive characteristics of the autochthonous silkworm, Umbria became a provider of raw material of excellent quality, resistant to illnesses and infections.
After the growing period was over, the cocoons would be treated by dipping them in hot water before being sold. In the farmer’s homes, special machinery was used either manually or mechanically, to allow the threads to be woven into a thicker one.
A silky white filled the workspaces, recreated today in Bevagna during the annual Medieval Gaite markets, when the Gaita of Saint Mary reenacts with patience and detail the various steps of the silkworm breeding: from the time the larvae are carefully deposited on the mulberry leaf-bed, until their rise into the woods to make the cocoon, from the boiling of the latter to the production of the thread by using a refined hydraulic mill. Scenes and gestures which remind us of the time when the Umbrian farmhouses were filled with the mono-tone and deafening sound of the worms relentlessly chomping down on the tender mulberry leaves.