In Orgosolo, preserving the ancient silk art

I have already written about Orgosolo stunning street art and about its antimilitarist spirit. Orgosolo, however, is not only politics. This obstreperous town of inland Sardinia’s region known as Barbagia is home to an exclusive form of ancient silk art.

Different from how they make silk in China, this is another way of producing and weaving it altogether. The only thing Chinese and Sardinian silk fabrics have in common is, alas, that they both are obtained out of the cocoons.

A life devoted to the silk art in Sardinia

Jewellery made with silk in Orgosolo, Sardinia
Pieces of jewellery Maria makes with her silk in Orgosolo, Sardinia

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. This is how I discovered that artisan Maria Corda is devoting her life to preserving this form of art she inherited from the maternal branch of her family tree.

Ancient forms of art are always 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, they probably had even less time, way less money, much more hunger, but probably they cared because they made the art their very lifestyle.

This, in a nutshell, is what’s happening in Orgosolo. Maria is struggling to carry on with this silk tradition because Sardinian women rarely 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 family heritage.

Although I’ve been happy to notice that in the island ancient traditions die hard, many survive only thanks to the devotion and hard work of some citizens. This is why I think visiting Maria’s lab is one the cool things to do in Sardinia.

Orgosolo silk part of Sardinian traditional costume

Lionzu, silk headscarf from Orgosolo
Lionzu, typical headscarf of Orgosolo traditional costume made with local silk

“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”.

On the island, every village has its own dress, for both men and women. In Orgosolo’s costume, women’s headscarf is 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 the village, starting from the production of the fabric 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.

READ MORE: Check out our detailed guide to planning a perfect holiday in Sardinia.

The silk art from China to Orgosolo

Orgosolo traditional costume
Full traditional costume of Orgosolo with the silk-made headscarf

When I went to Orgosolo to meet Maria my imagination had already pictured her aged and wearing traditional clothes herself. I soon found out she’s nowhere like I expected.

It was somehow reassuring to see a young woman devoted to a culture of inner Barbagia practised and perpetuated by her family, Muscau-Sorighe-Mereu, since the 16th century.

Silk was first discovered in China thousands of years ago. Sericulture, the process of raising silkworms and producing silk, brought about massive changes in the delicate tangle of political, economic and cultural affairs. For centuries, Chinese kept the process of producing silk secret and under strict imperial control. To the extent that exporting the worms and their eggs outside China was punishable by death.

The silk made its way to Europe

Little by little, they created the Silk Road and started trading silk westwards. In the second century, they even used it as a trading currency. They formed alliances, buy gold and make it 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, spices, precious stones. In some cases 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. More precious than the one made in Rome, since its process was unknown, they acknowledged 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.

The full process of making silk in Orgosolo

Silk weaving loom
Maria’s weaving loom. An important tool to make Orgosolo silk

Thanks to Maria, her small town still produces its cocoons. It’s a specific 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 building 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 16th century,” she told me. “But what can I do? I need to make a living too, don’t I?”

The ideal for Maria would be to receive a sponsorship from local authorities to maintain a museum-lab. Here 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 said.”But given the current economic situation, I really don’t feel like creating 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 about endangered ancient traditions. But it’s somehow encouraging to see there are people who still fight for them.

20 Comments
  1. Très interessant, à voir absolument!

  2. Veramente interessante, insolito, da conoscere e promuovere!

  3. It is such a shame when you see traditional ways of life disappearing. I hope that she manages to get the funding. Its amazing how labour intensive the whole process is.

  4. The headscarf is so colorful and beautiful. I hope Maria keeps up her Sardinian stubborness!

  5. 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…

    • 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 :)

  6. 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.

  7. I found this very fascinating. I have to agree with James that it is a shame to see traditional culture vanishing.

  8. 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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