Exploring the Techniques of “Made in Italy’s” Leather and Silk Regions

Exploring the Techniques of “Made in Italy’s” Leather and Silk Regions | MakersValley Blog
Charles Meyer

Charles Meyer

“Made in Italy.’” Three simple, yet magnificent words that illuminate stores, boutiques, and wardrobes worldwide. They tell stories of tradition, exuberance, and livelihood; exemplify excellence in artisanship, craft, and innovation; and create memories of joyfulness and comfortability. From a simple leather jacket, handcrafted in Florence, to the lavishly designed silk scarfs of Como, “Made in Italy” represents more to the eye than just “another garment.” 

This famous moniker showcases a proud culture, rooted deep in history and family heritage. It’s a way of life, reflected through intricately sewn patterns and refined artisanal techniques of the Masters. For centuries, Italian artisans have accumulated vast wealths of knowledge in their respective crafts, passed down generation-to-generation, each new practitioner adding their own unique imprints onto the techniques of their mothers and fathers. 

In doing so, they have brought an honor and dignity to their respective homes and its residents, cherished and admired by the fashion industry. From all over the globe, brands, artisans, and designers flock to the respective regions of Italy’s best artisans eager to learn from the source and conduct business with the best. 

But, what are the regions and cities of Italy that these entities specifically seek to visit? What is their history and why are their artisanal techniques so sought after? By delving into the geography of the Italian mainland, we will discover what truly makes “Made in Italy” the special pride and joy of the fashion industry. 

Tuscany: The Heartland of Italian Leather 

tuscany pisa arno river fashion leather tanningLocated in central Italy between the Apennines and Tyrrhenian Sea lies the central region of Tuscany, renowned for its beautiful panoramic landscapes and rich agricultural traditions. Tourists and citizens alike travel to its cities, towns, and villages to immerse themselves in the vineyards, cuisines, and fine arts that populate and drive the local economies of Tuscany. 

However, beyond these traditional attractions lies an incredible history and legacy in the artisanal craft of leather. For centuries dating back to the Middle Ages, tanning and leather production has prospered in the cities, towns, and villages located along the River Arno, with Florence and Santa Croce sull’Arno being the epicenters of these renowned crafts. Using its rich supply of water, leather tanners have perfected the technique of vegetable tanning, a long, intricate process that gives Italian leather its unique colors, textures, and distinct patina. 

Vegetable tanning allows Italian artisans to harness the natural tannins of tree bark, leaves, and roots from tree species like Chestnut and Mimosa to preserve, strengthen, and give hides their color and aroma. This process requires them to

  1. Cure and Cut – Hides arrive at a local tannery and are salt cured to prevent bacterial growth. They are then cut by Master cutters who separate the sides, buds, and shoulders of the animal skin.  
  2. Soak, Lime, and Dehair – The hides then soak in a solution of natural chemicals, inside large rotating wooden drums that aid in the removal of wool, hair, and fat residues from the skin. 
  3. Perform Fleshing and Splitting – In the fleshing process, artisans remove the remaining fat and flesh from the hides using a fleshing knife or rotating scraping rolls. This eliminates all traces of grease and flesh from the hide. Using a splitting machine, they then split the skin, dividing its multiple layers into top-grain, full-grain, and split-grain. Top-grain and full-grain are the preference, as they each represent high quality leather.  
  4. De-Lime –  After being fleshed and split, the hides return to the rotating wooden drums to rinse and rehydrate in a chemical solution that lowers their pH and prepares them for tanning.  
  5. Tan – The raw hides then bathe and soak in tanning pools or rotating drums filled with water and tannins. This phase can last from several days to several weeks depending on the method of application. Recipes for this mixture, including the vegetable sources, tannin concentrations, temperatures, and tanning times are all carefully kept secrets that vary from Master to Master. 
  6. Press – Once the tannins have been successfully applied, the hides are pressed to drain out the excess water and give the skins a uniform thickness. 
  7. Dye – Following the pressing process, the hides are dyed in a rotating drum to give the leather its color and vivacity. 
  8. Treat – To treat the leather, the Master artisans lubricate the hides using special oils and waxes that enhance the color concentration and improve the overall durability.
  9. Dry –  After dyeing, the hides are pressed again and dried. Like the tanning process, the drying technique – whether air drying or drying tunnel – depends on the Master.  

Upon completion of the vegetable tanning process, the Master artisan hands off the leather to international fashion houses and Italian leather craftsmen across the region who will carefully handcraft the hides into leather goods like jackets, handbags, gloves, and belts to be sold in stores all across Tuscany and the world. 

Lombardia: Home to the Silk City

lake como italy silk lombardyBordered to the north by Switzerland and encapsulated by the Emilia-Romagna, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, and Piedmont regions to the East and West lies the North Central region of Lombardia (Lombardy). Like Tuscany, this region is famous for the agricultural prowess granted it from its abundance of rivers, lakes, and tributaries, with the Po River acting as the main water source for its southern villages, towns, and cities. Known as the Po Valley, farmers and artisans in this region transformed Lombardy into the leading industrial and commercial region of Italy, with Milan being the central focal point of attraction and one of the “Fashion Capitals of the World.” 

Even though fashion enthusiasts flock to Milan to view the magnificent displays of “Made in Italy” products designed by fashion’s finest, it is in the mountainous Alpine terrains of Lombardy where a once highly regarded, lavish fabric resided, prospered, and brought worldwide acclaim to its artisans – Silk. But, why is silk such an important fabric to Lombardy and its artisans? What distinguishes the silk of Lombardy from the silk widely produced in China? 

In the mountainous terrains north of Milan resides the city of Como, home to the renowned Lake Como. Dubbed “The Silk City” by its residents, Como is the epicenter of silk manufacturing in Italy due to three reasons:

  1. The area’s ideal environment for sericulture and mulberry trees grown in the south
  2. Its crystal clear waters
  3. A rich history of procurement dating back to the 1400s

Manufacturers located here supply silken goods to fashion houses all over the world, including New York, Paris, and Milan. If you have seen a “Made in Italy” silk scarf, tie, blouse, or dress, chances are the silk came from Como. 

Unfortunately, the cultivation process of breeding and extracting silkworm cocoons has become defunct in Como, and a majority of the silk that passes through the region to Como’s artisans are from China. However, we can deduce a few key characteristics of the artisanal silk handling techniques that still make Como’s end products sought after commodities in fashion:

  1.  Handcrafted Designs –  Artisans carefully handcraft their silk designs to reflect the culture of beauty that surrounds Como. Each unique design is a product of a physical environment characterized by a city surrounded by sharp Swiss peaks and rolling Lombardy hills, with shores of crystal lakes decorated by medieval villas.
  2. Artisans Screen Print Their Silk Designs – For each color and pattern in a design, Lombardia's silk artisans create a screen and prepare the fabric dyes by hand. They will then stretch the fabric evenly across a flat surface and carefully introduce the patterns and dyes in a sequential manner onto the fabric. Following the application of the dyes, they will dry and steam the silk to ensure that the colors stick. Following this, they wash, treat, and iron the silk to ensure the textures are consistent with each artisan’s unique standards. 
  3. Como’s Artisans Integrate Their History into Their Art – From Como’s Museo Didattico della Seta, the Silk Museum, visitors can view all the traditional artisanal techniques once used by Como’s silk Masters from the 1850s to the 1950s. The museum is filled with the machines, objects, weaving notebooks, and work tools from the textile processes they specialized in that made Como the “Silk City.” In addition to the museum, all across the city stand designer boutiques filled with silken wares in the windows, as well as former silk mills which remind Como’s residents of silk’s prominence in its local history.

The Beauty of “Made in Italy”

beautiful made in italy italian countryside While Tuscany and Lombardy receive worldwide fashion acclaim for their masterful artisanship, the Italian countryside as a whole is packed with skilled artisans and Masters who continue to practice the traditions and techniques of their craft passed down from their mothers and fathers. 

In the Piedmont region, the northern town of Biella is famous for its wool production, particularly in its achievements in creating the soft textures that characterize their suits and garments. Along the southern region of Puglia (Apulia), artisans specialize in cotton procurement and manufacturing, using techniques such as mitered corners, hand dyeing, and hand embroidery that have brought brands, artisans, and designers to the region to study and learn from its Masters. 

Italian artisanship is truly a special commodity unique only to the country itself. Its regions have thrived and continue to excel in designing and manufacturing the world’s finest fashion. As the fashion industry continues to evolve, there is one certainty fashion consumers can always count on: those three famous words, “Made in Italy.”

colorful-italian-silk-ties

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