Little silkmakers

Little silkmakers


Clusters of silkworms munch on piles of locally-grown mulberry leaves in a white marquee in Italy's northern Veneto region. They are nourishing hopes of a revival of Italy's 1,000 year-old silk industry.

Decades after Veneto's last silk mills were shuttered as a post-war economic boom lured farmers to cities, budding silkmakers - or "sericulturists" - are trying to spin a niche around a traceable supply chain of high-quality material.


This budding silk industry is minuscule compared to the 130,000 tonnes of silk China manufactured in 2013, according to the International Sericultural Commission.

Italy - which is one of the world's major importers - uses the mainly Chinese silk to make finished fabric, neckties, scarves, shirts and dresses.

Italian entrepreneurship is still suffering after two decades of economic stagnation and three years of recession, but there are signs of a recovery, according to the national union of chambers of commerce Unioncamere.

. PADUA, ITALY. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Silkworm eggs and rearing techniques came to Europe from Asia along the trade routes known as the "Silk Road." They arrived around the year 1000 in Italy, where production reached a peak in the late 1800s with output topping 60,000 tonnes of cocoons a year.

But two world wars in quick succession at the beginning of the twentieth century changed the social and economic fabric of Europe. Soon after the second conflict, Italy began a period of industrialisation which was to spell the end of sericulture.

. PADUA, ITALY. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Now the industry in China, which makes some 85 percent of the world's silk, is under pressure from its own economic boom, said Kurada Keshendra Shetty of the Bangalore-based International Sericultural Commission.

"Due to rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, silk production in the country may decline considerably in the coming years," Shetty said.

. PADUA, ITALY. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Even as Chinese silk production looks set to decline, the fledgling industry in Europe faces its own challenges.

The silkmakers also worry about the future of the government-owned agricultural research centre in Padua, near Venice, where they work. The centre may be moved as part of a country-wide reorganisation of agricultural research aimed at improving efficiency.

Relocation may endanger the live organisms and waste money poured thus far into the project, says the Padua centre’s chief researcher Silvia Cappellozza.

These are the crazy things people do in Italy. They say let's contain public spending and they try to do it like this, she said, forlornly surveying the racks of fattening worms.

"The whole production chain is starting again here in Veneto. All of this would be lost."

. PADUA, ITALY. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi