Textiles and Lace-Making in Umbria
The earliest documented evidence of textile weaving in Umbria dates from between the 11th and 13th century. By the 14th century the so-called tovaglie perugine, the earliest examples of which date from a century earlier, had become fashionable as altarcloths throughout Italy. Generally they consisted of a linen base decorated with either geometric designs or animals such as griffins or eagles, either in tourquoise, brown or red. A number of painters such as Pietro Lorenzetti or Ghirlandaio employed them in their compositions, thereby providing us with a near-perfect idea of what they were like. By the end of the 16th century only a few convents and monasteries continued to weave tovaglie perugine, chiefly for use as cloths for services. It was not until 1906, at the national exhibition of Italian women’s crafts in Rome, that the Umbrian pavilion presented the cloth once more with resounding success. Promoted as a means of providing employment by a group of cultivated ladies, the art of textile weaving in Umbria has been growing ever since and now includes also embroidery and lace-making. Highly popular up until the 1950s, the flame design of gradually intensifying colours used in the arazzi a fiamma cloths produced in Perugia ranked among the most prized Italian textiles. Another rediscovered technique was the fondo a l'occhietto or occhio di pernice base originally used for the white area of antique tovaglie perugine. With its characteristic relief work, this was particularly suited to heavy cloths such as those draped over tables to cover them. A number of workshops still weave these today.
At Città di Castello the Laboratorio Tela Umbra a Mano workshop set up by Baroness Alice Franchetti Hallgarten still produces exquisite textiles to classic Umbrian designs. The Laboratorio’s original premises, Palazzo Tommasini, now houses the Tela Umbra textile collection – well worth a visit – that comprises interesting pieces documenting the history of weaving, from lace to crochet work, Renaissance Umbrian tablecloths and contemporary tapestries. A large section of the museum is devoted to looms and other traditional weaving machinery thorugh the ages.
Towards the beginning of the 20th century the art of weaving in the area around Lake Trasimene benefited from two important events – the opening at Passignano of an embroidery school and workshop specialised in punto Umbro – the traditional Arab point used in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese embroidery –, and the introduction to the Isola Maggiore of Irish lacemaking techniques, which require extreme precision and were therefore well suited to the hands of women who, being fishermen’s wives, were used to the delicate task of weaving nets.
The Ars Panicalensis technique of hand-embroidered tulle originated in Panicale and is known throughout the world. Although the technique dated back several centuries, it was not reintroduced to Panicale until the 1920s by Anita Belleschi Grifoni. The school she founded still produces its exquisite pieces today, with designs used for tablecloths, curtains, handkerchiefs and bridal veils.
The Ars Vetana of Orvieto consists of prized lace, which is entirely hand made from extremely fine cotton threads along the lines of Irish lacemaking techniques.
Regional museums of interest:
Panicale: Museo del Tulle
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