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Look at this amazing late 15th-century Venetian brocaded velvet, today at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York! The intensity of the colour, the great care taken for executing the decorative ‘pomegranate’ pattern, and the shiny reflecting surface of the cut silk pile of this precious hand-woven fabric is something that we no longer see in contemporary textile production.

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In order to understand how historical patterned silks such as this were made and what stages were involved in their production, I decided to contact the Fondazione Arte della Seta Lisio in Florence, an institute dedicated to preserving historical textiels and weaving techniques. The picture below shows one of the stunning reproductions that was created by the professional weavers at Lisio (www.fondazionelisio.org), as well as the enormous Jacquard looms on whcih the fabrics were created, dating back to the early 19th-century.

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The professional weavers of the institute not only knew how to weave on these looms but they also knew how to set them up according to the design. This involved tying both the ground and pattern warp threads as well as programming the ‘Jacquard device’ that created the pattern, by organising the punched cards in a particular order according to the design. Imagine how much knowledge and patience is reuqired for the preparation of warp threads! This lady working on one of the looms when I arrived, seen on the left, told me that it takes two whole working days for two people to tie the warps.

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As training in practical work on textiles in an essential part of my Marie Curie research fellowship, I decided to negotiate a research period at the institute, focusing on historical textile techniques. During the five days that I spent in the institute, I was instructed on historical textile technologies by two specialists, Julie Holyoke and Eva Basile. Under their guidance, I learned the basics about how to weave, draw and analyse textile structures, how the warps are tied according to the design, and how to recognise different weave structures in surviving historical fabrics.

I also had the chance to observe how these beautiful brocades and patterned velvets were made before my eyes by the professional weavers of the institute. Spending time just by looking made me really understand not just how much technical knolwedge was required for translating a design onto the loom but also how much time it took to produce patterned silks. Even with a full day’s work, a weaver would not produce more that the maximum of about 60 cm of velvet per day.

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Since the Jacquard looms, such as those at Lisio, were not introduced in textile production until the late 18th-cetury, I found my thoughts going back to the 16th-century -my own area of specialization- and thinking how different was the production of fabrics before the invention of the Jacquard loom. Not much different, I was told. Patterned damasks, velvets and brocades in the 16th- and 17th-centuries were woven on a draw loom. Like the Jaquard loom, it was based on a mechanism that operated two separate systems of harness, one of which controlled the ground warp threads, the other the pattner warps. But the difference is that, whereas the harness that creates the pattern on the Jacquard loom is controlled by punched cards (a kind of early form of computerised version), the patterning device in the case of draw loom was operated by the ‘draw boy’.

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I left the course with a great appreciation for the historical textiles and their creators and could not help wondering would it be possible to translate some of this quality and beauty in today’s textile production? Could a greater knolwedge and appreciation of traditional textile techniques change our attitudes to consumption? Luckily, my Ph.D. student Tuulia Lampinen, a textile designer, is working on the subject. She is exploring some ways in which some of the technques could be translated into today’s designer practice and textile tehcnology.

After long days at the Lisio, I rested my mind, looking around at the beautiful sites of Florence and, of course, eating fabulous dinners at the small taverns in the neighbourhood I used live, near the Santo Spirito.

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One morning, waiting for the bus to go the Lisio, I also came across this unusual site: a pair of Renasisacne statues blocking the whole street as they were exiting the Palazzo Medici.

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For the institute of Lisio and its courses, go to:

http://www.fondazionelisio.org/

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