How Sardinian Weaving Nearly Became a Lost Art

There are some traditions that are universal. Here, we highlight a single craft — and how it’s being adapted, rethought and remade for the 21st century.

Rugs courtesy of Laboratorio Tessile Artigiano/Isabella Frongia.
Photograph by Kyoko Hamada. Styled by Theresa Rivera

Article by By Deborah Needleman, first appeared on Sept. 13, 2018 The New York Time Style Magazine.

WHEN ISABELLA FRONGIA, 61, perhaps the most gifted weaver in Samugheo, the Sardinian town best known for its textiles, was a little girl, she would watch her mother, Susanna, work for hours at her loom. Located in the entry hall, the loom had been built of oak and chestnut by a local carpenter, and its squared edges had long ago gone smooth to the touch. Susanna, who is now 86, would sit before it, raising alternate strings attached to bamboo poles by pressing on the wooden pedals at her feet. She would send a bobbin of weft thread gliding across the horizontal surface of the remaining strings, strung taut in the loom’s belly, before yanking a heavy hinged wood batten with metal teeth toward herself, locking each new row into the others. This simple gesture — passing a weft thread through a base of stable warp threads — is the same for every piece of cloth ever woven. And on this loom, Susanna made everything the family needed, from bedcovers, blankets and towels to the wool textiles laid atop wood chests and the saddlebags slung over the backs of donkeys or men to transport things. Each piece was crafted according to designs and patterns stored in an unwritten repository of techniques and styles, many unique to the island, which over centuries had been passed through the hands of Sardinia’s women.
None of this accounts, however, for Isabella’s decision to make her life as a weaver, because at that time every woman in Samugheo wove what her family needed, and every daughter was expected to do the same. In fact, until the early ’80s, all girls were taught to weave. Samugheo is remote, in the island’s center, and separated from its closest neighbor, Allai, by steep hills. All islands are, by definition, isolated, but Sardinia, afloat on the Mediterranean like a puzzle piece gone missing from the coastline of southern France and northern Spain, was more so than most, and for longer. “As if here where the world left off” is how D.H. Lawrence described it in 1921, in his book “Sea and Sardinia.” Having fought a nonstop string of marauders lured by its strategic location — including Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Vandals, Byzantines and Arabs — and having endured long stretches of Roman and Spanish rule, Sardinians moved inland, forming small towns to protect themselves against conquerors and the harsh landscape. The people were poor but self-sufficient, and wary — for good reason — of outsiders.
Samugheo (population 3,018) is an unremarkable-looking town that sits snug against breathtaking cliffs and gorges, forests of cork oak and olive trees and fields fragrant in spring with asphodel and poppy. From a young age, girls began the laborious work of weaving the items for their own future dowry (corredo), which took the form of all the linens they planned to bring with them into marriage. When a girl married, the corredo would be paraded down the street, held aloft by relatives in a celebratory procession marking the girl’s move from her family’s home to her new one. The procession was of course an expression of culture and community, but it was also a ritualized form of showing off. According to Kyre Chenven, the co-founder of the Sardinia-based design company Pretziada, this competitiveness is partially responsible for the extraordinary level of skill and expertise found in the work here. “These woven items,” she says, “were a reflection not of outward beauty but of one’s refinement, skill and dedication.” One of the most special things the women would make — a finely woven linen bedcover with its design picked out in raised loops using a technique called pibiones (or “grapes,” which they resemble) — is unique to the island and has been practiced since antiquity. In addition to the technical prowess, the pattern language here is unusually rich. There are brightly colored “naïve” figures of people and animals familiar to European folk textiles, but also florals evocative of Persian textiles, abstract geometrics and heraldic symbols that feel distinctly Byzantine. And yet, for all their diversity and sophistication, Sardinian rugs and textiles are virtually unknown outside of Sardinia.

A Sardinian woman from around 1910 dressed in decorative clothing native to the island. The patterns and style of dress are specific to each town. Traditional Sardinian weavings are patterned with small raised bumps of thread, called pibiones.
United Archives/Carl Simon/Granger

THE MODERN WORLD didn’t arrive in Sardinia until after World War II, when it was as if the Middle Ages had turned a corner and collided with the 1950s. Recognizing the local treasure buried on the island’s surface, advocates and organizations, often with government backing, sprang up to educate local craftspeople (weaving is just one of many traditions) and promote their work abroad.

Susanna went to work for a wealthy woman in town who, recognizing that the local women’s textiles could become a source of income for them, started a workshop. Suddenly, these women were being paid for work they had always done; it brought a measure of freedom and independence and a sense of self-worth. When their benefactor married and gave up her business, Susanna and another worker started a cooperative. When that partner also married and gave up work, Susanna created her own company.
The 1960s were a period of great exuberance and expansion in Samugheo. The town’s ever-multiplying workshops were beginning to acquire mechanized looms to make the work easier, faster and cheaper at roughly the same moment as the Aga Khan was developing the world’s most luxurious resort for the global jet set — a sophisticated and excellent customer base — on the coast at Porto Cervo, about 90 miles away. But Susanna Frongia held fast to her manual loom, working in a way unchanged for thousands of years. Why bother? she thought. The pleasure and point of weaving is weaving, not running a machine — even if that decision essentially priced her work out of the market.

A colorfully woven rug, or tappeto, from 1925. This one is adorned with cherubs.
Museo MURATS, from the book “Tessidura,” Imago edizioni, 2017 (Photograph: Ludovico Mura)

But the trajectory of booms is all too familiar, and by the ’70s there was a glut of product, much of it mediocre, a flagging economy and competition from abroad as well as from more industrialized Italian cities. In 1996, Isabella, who trained as a teacher, took over the business. Today, the company, Laboratorio Tessile Artigiano Isabella Frongia, is just Isabella, her cousin Anna Maria and Susanna, working and living in the home where Isabella grew up. In Samugheo, there are only 12 other workshops left, the tradition all but destroyed by the very promise of expansion. Some of the shops are like ghosts of a better time. Marcella Flore, 38, works alone in a vast workshop of five hulking industrial looms acquired in the flush years by her parents, both now dead. Some are modern and innovative factories, like Mariantonia Urru’s, now run by the 74-year-old Urru’s four sons, who gracefully mix manual historical work with high-tech Jacquard machines and cutting-edge designs. Isabella Frongia’s business is singular in its commitment to the skills and techniques of handcraft, and the time and passion that it requires.

The bedcovers that once upon a time every girl made for her future life are today too valuable, and too labor intensive, to have a commercial market. Every so often, Isabella will get a commission for a linen bedcover of that kind, heavily embellished with pibiones, which takes her about three months of work. A business like hers can only be sustained by private clients who appreciate what she does and are willing to pay for it: They value the tradition and dedication to making a beautiful object entirely by hand, an effort one cannot always see.
What you can see is Isabella through the window of her workshop, at the entry of the home where she has lived all her life. Here, she and her cousin sit, still working, pressing the pedals, shooting bobbins across and pulling back the comb. In familiar silence, they weave.

Article by By Deborah Needleman, first appeared on Sept. 13, 2018 The New York Time Style Magazine.

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