In Orgosolo, preserving ancient silk art

Maria’s house in Orgosolo

I have written about Orgosolo stunning street art and about its antimilitarist spirit, and now I want to introduce another form of art that again is exclusive to this obstreperous town of inland Sardinia‘s region known as Barbagia.

I have also already published a post about silk in China, and now I’m going to show another kind of silk, a different way to produce and weave it. The only thing Chinese and Sardinian silk fabrics have in common is, alas, that they both are obtained out of the cocoons.

Although I had been hearing about “Orgosolo silk” for quite a while, only recently I had the opportunity to visit the lab-museum where this ancient and unique fabric is made, discovering that artisan Maria Corda is devoting her life to preserving this form of art she inherited from the maternal branch of her family tree.

As it happens, ancient forms of art are the toughest to preserve. Not because today we are less gifted than before, but because today we don’t have time, we don’t have money and we don’t really care. In the past, I believe, they had even less time, way less money, much more hunger, and probably they cared because it was not an art but their very lifestyle. It’s sad to think that every generation loses a piece of history because too busy to continue or because production methods have changed.

This, in a nutshell, what’s happening to Maria, who is struggling to carry on with this tradition because nowadays local women don’t wear traditional clothes anymore but, at the same time, as stubborn as only someone from Sardinia can be, she doesn’t want to give up on her personal heritage.

Although I’ve been happy to notice that in the island ancient traditions definitely die hard, most survive only thanks to the devotion and hard work of some local citizens.

The worm and its cocoon

“You know,” Maria told me pointing out at the traditional garments, “in the past this was women’s daily clothes, so they all wore su lionzu, typical headscarf of Sardinia’s costume. Until about the ’70s women wore it on their wedding day, but now we are even losing this piece of our history, hence nobody buys it anymore”.

In the island, every village has its own dress, both for men and for women, and Orgosolo’s one has the typical headscarf strictly made with this particular silk. All over Sardinia, traditional costumes, even if different from each other, they all include a headscarf, but su lionzu of Orgosolo is the only one entirely made in its hometown, from the fabric production to the weaving. Unlike the usual silk we know, this is harder and resists throughout the generations, so if young women want to wear it only for their wedding day, most of the times they just use their mother’s or grandmother’s one.

When I went to Orgosolo to meet Maria my imagination had already pictured her aged and wearing traditional clothes herself, like many women in the island. I soon found out she’s nowhere like I expected. It was somehow reassuring to see such a young woman devoted to a culture of inner Barbagia that since the beginning of the 16th century has been practiced and perpetuated by her family, Muscau-Sorighe-Mereu.

Maria’s weaving loom

Silk was first discovered in China thousands of years ago, and sericulture, the process of raising silk worms and produce the precious natural fiber, brought about massive changes in the delicate tangle of political, economic and cultural affairs of ancient times. For centuries, the way to produce silk has been kept secret and under strict imperial control, to the extent that exporting the worms and their eggs outside of China was punishable by death.

Little by little, the legendary Silk Road was created, the precious material was traded westwards, and in the second century it was even used as trading currency, to form alliances with neighboring countries, buy gold and also as a reward to who did the state a good service. Symbol of the first contacts between East and West, the Silk Road made it possible to deliver not just silk, spices and precious stones but also ideas and inventions: it’s through this harsh path that paper and compass from China reached Europe.

When the wave of oriental silk arrived in Rome, in the first century BC, the aristocratic patricians immediately understood the value of the newly discovered material: much more precious than the ones made in Rome, but since its process was unknown, they realized it could only be imported. Sericulture arrived in Southern Italy around the 10th century AD, but the biggest trade and subsequent production happened in the northern part of the country. The heyday of Italian silk production was in the early 1900s, and while Italy doesn’t produce the cocoon anymore, its finished products and fabrics, especially those made in Como province, are among the most sought-after in the world.

Lionzu, typical headscarf of Orgosolo traditional costume

Thanks to Maria, her small town still produces its cocoons, a particular yellow type that has been named “Orgosolo breed”. It hibernates for ten months, after which it feeds on mulberry leaves for 50 days, finally it refuses to eat and starts bulilding its cocoon perched on plants and branches. It takes 100 cocoons to make one single thread, and 2000 to make one headscarf.

Maria needs one whole year to make three headscarves. She tried to get the support of the local council but she’s been unsuccessful so far. “Of course I want to preserve this tradition, it belongs to my family since the 1700s,” she said, “but what can I do? I need to make a living too, don’t I?”

Pieces of jewelry Maria makes with her silk

The ideal for Maria would be to be sponsored by local authorities to maintain a museum-lab where she can weave and sell her products as well as show visitors and teach other local girls her family’s handicraft. “I would love to teach how to raise the worms, get the thread and weave it,” she told me,” but as it’s the situation right now I really don’t feel like producing future unemployed women.” She has a small museum and she charges a symbolic 3€ for a demonstration and an explanation of her art, but she doesn’t know for how long she will be able to keep it alive.

It’s sad to think that ancient traditions are endangered, but it’s somehow encouraging to see there still are people who fight for them and that they are proudly supported by their townspeople.

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  1. says

    The headscarf is what drew me in as well. It’s beautiful, yet I would have thought it Middle Eastern rather than Italian. I suppose the world really is small…

    • says

      Sophie, that’s true actually, Sardinia has had a Moorish presence in the Middle Ages, and we kept (and improved :P) many aspects of their society, such as food, names, words and also clothing style. This was the daily dress for all women of all ages in the past, today less but you can still find some women wearing it. You might think it’s not exactly comfortable and handy (at least I think so!), but they manage to do all the house chores dressed like this, so they must feel comfy :)

  2. says

    Modernization is everywhere and I see Sardinia is no exception. Big kudos to Maria for taking a step to preserving a tradition!!! Its the rare and generous few who take a stand that keeps the past alive. Fascinating article, by the way – learned something new about silk.

  3. says

    I would definitely make a visit to Maria’s museum. It’s so interesting to learn about Sardinia’s silk production and weaving. The jewelry that Maria makes is beautiful.


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