Como Silk – Memoirs of a Textile Designer

Como has been a tourist destination from the days of the Grand Tour but it maintains equal significance as a centre for silk production. Current visitors to Como might think that the silk industry is a thing of the past given the number of its industrial archaeological sites.
villa bernasconi

Villa Bernasconi, Cernobbio – Liberty masterpiece built for Davide Bernasconi, founder of the largest textile plant in Italy.

Grand brick chimneys still stand proud from Cernobbio to Sant’Abbondio although no longer linked to the steam engines driving the mechanical looms. Even the presence of the silk museum suggests an activity assigned to the past. Apart from a couple of silk retailers, Como’s centre does not accurately reflect the current state of its industrial heritage. The industry is still here but now housed in factories freed up from the need to be close to the rivers and torrents running down from the mountains to provide power. They prefer to be located with easy links via motorway and airport to suppliers and customers that span the world. They occupy locations like Grandate or Guanzate where few tourists are likely to venture unless of course they are astute enough to be seeking out the factories’ cheap retail outlets.

For sure, the heyday of the industry has passed. All industries face the challenge of change whether technical, social or economic and none more so than Como’s silk industry which has over the years lost some of its scale and importance. Yet it has also secured a niche in the global market for printing and finishing high quality products for many of the leading fashion houses. Today the silk industry is either as economically important or arguably more so than the tourism inherited from the Grand Tour.

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The silk worm and the all-important mulberry tree were first introduced to Lombardy by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in the sixteenth century. All phases in silk production grew during the eighteenth century but the true phase of industrialisation was in the mid nineteenth century and was characterised in Como by a high degree of specialist separation of the different phases of production. Spinning of the yarn from the silk worm cocoons was, for example, more prevalent in the neighbouring province of Lecco and in Brianza. However that meant that Como gained prevalence in all the other phases of production such as colour dyeing, weaving, screen printing and all forms of finishing. Most of the company names from the first wave of industrialisation have gone but some of those set up in the twentieth century are still going strong such as Ratti, Mantero, Clerici, Verga and Bianchi.
Ratti factory Guanzate

Ratti factory, Guanzate

These are the companies that actually produce many of the products from the famous fashion houses such as Chanel or Dior. Key in establishing this predominant lead in the industry was the far-sighted vision of the early industrialists when in 1866 they set up a technical school for developing industry-specific expertise  – the so-called ‘Istituto Tecnico Industriale di Setificio di Como’ The school now exists both as a scientific ‘liceo’ and as a technical institute meaning that Como continues to maintain a high level of local expertise and specialist knowledge with three quarters of its students going on to  work in the silk industry either locally or world-wide.

Made in Como

The glory days for the industry were after the Second World War leading up to the 1990’s, now recognised as the heyday of production and known locally as the ‘anni d’oro’ when Como named itself the ‘città della seta’. Since then the pace of those three key aspects of change has transformed the industry. Globalisation has now seen the transfer of almost all spinning and much weaving activity away from Lombardy to India and China where costs are lower. Fashion continues to change the demand for certain products – how many of us men now regularly wear a tie? And technology, in particular computerisation, has changed all aspects of production with particular impact on fabric printing. Yet in spite of that, Como’s silk producers like Ratti, Mantero and Clerici have survived and thrive thanks to a focus on quality, creativity and skill.
mantero hq

Mantero’s headquaters on Via Volta, Como

It was also in the 1990s that local artist Irma Kennaway moved from Paris to Florence and then to Como to take up a post as a textile designer for Mantero S.p.A. She was here during those ‘anni d’oro’ when she also experienced the massive changes and challenges brought about by digitalisation. Having our own English-speaking expat as an active witness to those critical years was too good an opportunity for me to miss. I had to return to her home in Brunate where I had first interviewed her about her art (see Ice Cream and Vespas) to record her testimony of that crucial period.
IK: We worked in a huge design room at Mantero’s offices under the benign gaze of the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio- a big airy room for 10 designers each with our own table and with a massive library of books we could consult. All that has now changed.
sant abbondio

‘Under the benign gaze of Sant’Abbondio…’

Top world designers came to Mantero. Some of the French houses included Yves Saint Laurent, Lacroix, Ungaro and Chanel – Chanel was quite a story; we were hand painting our designs, scanning them on the photocopier then cutting out photocopies to make variants on each single design. For just one scarf we might well have had to produce up to twenty different variants. We might spend up to 2 or 3 days with piles of photocopies. We could well end up sticking 20 or 30 photocopies of separate design elements together to save cutting time but we still got callouses! The amount of paper going through our photocopier was vast and all 10 of us designers were queuing up to use it.
When we hand painted a design we often had to get out the hairdryer to dry off the designs in time for the courier to collect them for overnight delivery to Paris. We had huge Fedex bills and God forbid if a design got lost. All of that has completely changed – now designs are just sent over as an email attachment in seconds.
Pashmina Hand Painted

Hand-painted pashmina, Irma Kennaway

CC: Which Fashion Houses came to Mantero?
From the UK some fashion houses included Liberty, Aquascutum and Harrods. Then from the USA there was Judith Leiber, Ralph Lauren, and Diane Von Furstenberg. Which of us designers designed a scarf depended on the type of design required. For example, if the brief was for intricate detailed designs for Dior, then they would choose Fulvio who was incredibly precise. When YSL wanted big, bold and colourful, they asked for me. It was great working there – we had a marvelous sense of comradeship and there was no stepping on each other’s toes as we pulled together as a team.

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But by the end of the 90s we were moved into a small dark room – the big design room was almost empty and now we were sat in front of screens designing on the computer. It was quite depressing. Today you have people working on computers but not necessarily in a darkened room! There are still a few people just hand painting their designs, these then get scanned and processed on the computer using Photoshop.
mulberry tree

Como’s Museo della Seta, on Via Castelnuovo, with its mulberry trees

The really big change, where a lot of people lost their jobs, is in the area of screen printing which worked through colour separation. The engravers or ‘incisori’ had to make separate transparent sheets for each colour which then were layered on each other. That skill has now almost entirely gone. The ‘incisori’ had to know how to draw and to draw precisely but now it’s all done on the computer. Screen printing is becoming increasingly replaced by ink jet printing. Ink jet is like a huge plotter where the design is fed in via a CD or directly from a computer alongside the kilometres of fabric to be printed.

screen printing ticosa

Screen printing, Ticosa factory 1920s

So what do you do with all the screens? It was a huge problem for Mantero. They took up a lot of warehouse space and the nylon meshes would deteriorate over the years. They had to be kept in the dark. Companies like Liberty had evergreen designs, meaning they would be reprinted every year. But after ten to fifteen years they would have to remake the screens. That would be quite costly.  In the factory one could see the computer controlled mixing up of colours which were then poured manually onto the screens. There is an art in judging how much ink to pour onto the screen.’
The spinning of silk yarn is no longer done in Como. There is an excellent on-line ‘virtual’ museum in English or with sub-titled video extracts recounting  the experiences of those working in the spinning factories of Lecco at this link. Much of the information there is also on show at the Abegg Silk Museum in Garlate, just outside of Lecco.
Abegg silk museum

The Abegg Silk Museum in Garlate, near to Lecco.

The Museo di Seta at Como does however have three mulberry trees in its front yard as testimony to the past! Silk and other fabric weaving is however still important, as is printing and finishing although I am not sure of the contemporary significance of colour dyeing. Irma mentioned how some fabrics weaved in India, or more predominantly in China these days, may come back to Como for print and finish. Como has maintained its reputation for the printing and finishing of high-end quality textiles. It is the fashion houses that own the brands who have concerns over printing in the Far East due to the risk of copyright violations.

Ink-jet Printing
IK: Most companies have now invested in ink-jet technology. Fortunately I was able to persuade Mantero to get on the bandwagon because Paul Smith, who was always very avant-garde, was using ink jet. Mantero bosses were convinced to invest in inkjet machines starting off with one, then two and so on.  Now I have no idea how many they have. There are a number of other companies apart from Mantero that have important printing operations here, including Achille Pinto who prints for high-end British fashion houses and a lot of French designers. (Achille Pinto later acquired Franco Ferrari, another quality silk producer.) A lot of the big design houses don’t like to commit to a single producer and so they might get Mantero to do one type of design and some other company to produce designs on other fabrics.
Irma Colourways

Colourways – Silk scarf colour variants. Irma Kennaway

What are still done today are the different colourways. You wouldn’t normally have a design in a single colour combination. You have a ‘variantista’ or colourist take the design and adapt its mood by presenting it in different colour versions. Changes are made twice a year to coincide with the releases of the Spring/Summer and the Autumn/Winter collections. So a design created for the winter collection on wool may get reproduced again with some colour changes in the Spring/Summer collection but on chiffon, for example.
Some design houses sent in their finished designs ready to be printed whilst others came and looked into the archives to choose a design asking if they could label it as theirs. When I had some spare time I would work up some ideas, present them to some of the fashion houses and they were often accepted. Or sometimes, as happened with me,  a fashion house like Yves Saint Laurent would come and present a theme they wanted and ask us to come up with some ideas. Chanel  did the same thing. For them, we had to present 30 different ideas just for a single scarf design. However a design house like Paul Smith had very clear ideas about what they wanted. You couldn’t add your own ideas. It all depended on the customer.’
Having discussed screen and ink-jet printing and recording the days when the local river, the Cosia, would change colour according to what colour dyes were being produced, Irma was keen to mention her particular specialism – hand painting.
jes scarf

Personalised hand-painted scarf created for the artist’s niece. Irma Kennaway

IK: What brought me to Como originally was my experience of hand painting on silk in Paris for different fashion houses and hand painting my own scarves. Now that everything is so industrialised, you really need to go back to hand painting if you want something individual. But there again, some modern technologies can help with this. Now I can draw directly on the iPad, send the design straight to the printers and get a one-off scarf made up. With the technology available, it is actually very much easier for an individual to produce something. The beauty of inkjet is you can do a one-off whereas you could never have assumed the cost of possibly 20 different colour separations by screen printing.
jes scarf on lake

The artist and scarf on the lakefront

Nowadays there’s a market for small-scale freelancers to offer individualised products. For example, I suggest personalised scarves or other types of digitally-printed materials as wedding gifts or for wedding guests.’
It was those painterly skills Irma developed in Paris and at the Central St.Martin’s College of Art that qualified her for the post of textile designer at Mantero back in 1990s in an era when hand painting skills were crucially important. Now computerisation has changed that and much else to do with weaving, designing, printing and finishing silk. However, as Irma suggests, technology also opens up opportunities for personalisation or for one-off or limited production runs – and the creativity and talent plus the production facilities and materials for doing so are all present here in modern-day Como.
To learn more about Como’s silk industry, do visit the Museo della Seta on Via Castelnuovo. Follow this link for information on opening hours.
To see more of Irma Kennaway’s work on iPad follow this link.
comocrea trade show
The importance of Como’s silk industry is underlined by the two trade shows per year dedicated to textiles; details are available by following these links to Comocrea and Proposte Expo. Both are held in the Villa Erba Conference Centre in Cernobbio.
Both Ratti  and Mantero have factory outlet stores for those seeking a bargain. The addresses are:
Mantero: Via Riccardo Mantero 4, Grandate.
Ratti: Via Madonna 32, Guanzate
villa erba

Villa Erba, Cernobbio – childhood home of neo-realist film director, Luchino Visconti and modern-day exhibition centre


About comocompanion

I am an Englishman in Como, Northern Italy - definitely both a Euro and Italophile with an interest in modern history, walks in the hills and mountains, and food and wine. I favour 'slow' tourism alongside of 'slow' food.
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