In a quiet corner of the bohemian district of San Frediano, hidden behind an 18th-century iron gate that opens onto a whimsical wisteria-covered alleyway, lies a Florentine cultural treasure: the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, or Antique Florentine Silk Mill, which has been producing precious textiles since 1786.
To enter through the atelier’s large, worn timber door is to slip back through time and revisit the enchantment and beauty of a more opulent era.
Inside, 18th- and 19th-century timber and iron looms, some towering over 16 feet tall, clatter furiously in rhythm with tens of thousands of luminous silk threads, weaving warp and weft yarns into sumptuous fabrics, guided by the skilled hands of a select team of expert artisans.
Since moving to Italy in 2003, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated with the country’s highly talented artisans, their intriguing workshops and the quality of their products, particularly in the Tuscan capital of Florence.
When I first visited the Antico Setificio Fiorentino in 2018 for a private event, I was captivated by the giant ancient looms and the exquisite fabrics they produced. Their histories, I learned, were entwined with Renaissance society.
There are around 200 historical fabric designs in the institution’s archive that have been passed down through generations of families. Some bear the names and designs of Italian and European monarchy and nobility: the lampas of Princess Mary of England; the brocatelle of Corsini, Guicciardini and Principe Pio Savoia; and the damask of Doria, to name only a few.
Many of these families practiced sericulture — the raising of silkworms and the production of silk — and silk weaving in Florence during the era of the House of Medici, which rose to power in the 15th century.
Silk was introduced to Italy by Catholic missionaries working in China around the year 1100. The art of silk weaving and sericulture in Tuscany flourished in the 14th century; the main production was in Lucca, though it soon expanded to Florence, Venice and Genoa.
At peak production, there were around 8,000 looms operating in Florence. Today only a handful of those remain, eight of which are in production in the Antico Setificio Fiorentino. (Those eight looms were donated by noble families in the 1700s.) In total, the mill houses 12 looms, including the more recent semi-mechanical machines.
At the heart of the silk mill is a machine called a warper, which prepares warp yarns to be used on a loom. This particular warper, designed to operate vertically, was built in the early 19th century, according to original drawings made by Leonardo da Vinci in 1485.
“We use it in the way that it was designed — powered by hand,” said Fabrizio Meucci, the technician and restorer at the workshop.
“It’s not just there for its beauty,” Mr. Meucci added, describing the workshop as a “living and working mill that looks like a museum.”
It’s mesmerizing to watch Leonardo’s warper machine in motion, spinning and perfectly aligning warp threads from a row of twirling spools onto the creel, which gathers the precious threads. These warp threads are then used to weave trims, ribbons, cords and braiding — used for everything from upholstery, furnishings, and bed and bath linens to fashion clothing and accessories.
Dario Giachetti, a 30-year-old artisan, has been working in the textile industry for the past 10 years and only recently joined the team of weavers at the Antico Setificio Fiorentino.
“There is so much to learn and comprehend in a place like this — even for somebody like me, with my level of experience,” he said, adding that it’s magical to see the finished product realized from the raw materials.
“You really get to see the fabric grow and come to life,” he said, describing the process from start to finish — from the pure silk fibers to the tinting stages, the winding and spooling of the threads, the creation of the cylindrically shaped skein of yarn, then on to the bobbins, the warp threads and then, finally, the looms.
The entire process takes time, and hand weaving in particular is very slow. It can take an entire day to produce just 15 inches of a fabric like damask, with its intricate designs.
Other fabrics with thicker threads — such as the brocatelle Guicciardini, for example, which is typically used for upholstery — can be produced more quickly, perhaps as much as six or seven feet in a day.
Outside the walls of the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, the art of producing handmade textiles is largely vanishing, Mr. Meucci, the technician, said. Making industrial silk fabrics with modern machines is faster, easier and cheaper. Most manufacturers can’t justify the expense.
But for Mr. Giachetti, the weaver, the final product encompasses so much more than just the technical processes involved in its creation. When he weaves, he told me, he supplies not just his time, but also his heart, his passion.
“You are not just buying a fabric,” he said. “You are also receiving a part of my heart.”
“This,” he added, “is the real difference between an artisanal textile and one made industrially.”
Susan Wright is an Australian photographer based in Italy, where she has lived since 2003. You can follow her work on Instagram.