Italian handcrafts: The Straw Hats of Signa
- WTI Magazine #104 Jun 16, 2018
The weaving of plant fibres is one of humanity’s most ancient activities, and takes inspiration from nature and has been used over time to create a wide variety of containers and hats that protect against the sun’s glare. In Signa in 1714, Domenico Michelacci, known as Bolognino, began to cultivate 'grano marzuolo', a variety of wheat with small ears and tiny grains, in order to have straw for weaving. He sowed it densely, so that it would grow longer through seeking out the light, in shallow furrows to be able to uproot it easily while it was still flexible, before the culm swelled and the ears formed grains.
By making use of the widely available hat weaving skills, Michelacci made a large quantity of them, using the last internodes of the stems. He then presented his beautiful products on the piazza in Livorno and immediately achieved great success, which was soon reiterated elsewhere, especially in England, which ordered the hats in increasing quantities.
The international demand was soon so great that it became necessary to specialise the production stages and the various processes, establishing the timeframes and methods, such as annual double sowing to achieve the greatest quantity possible, and bleaching first in the sun and then with sulphur vapours.
The organisation of the work for manufacturing the weaves and sewing them to create hats was also rationalised. Newly designed machinery was introduced to select the material, press it and then skein the weaves, form the shapes and iron the hats.
Much of the population of Signa was involved in this new form of employment, and as such ever-larger areas of land were given over to the cultivation of the straw to be weaved. It thereby became the main industry among the production and manufacturing activities of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, making use of a third of its arable land and around 150,000 paid employees.
This industrial revolution pre-dated the developments that would come to pass in the second half of the century in the large Atlantic countries and continental Europe. The sale of straw abroad constituted one of the few cases of raw materials being exported from Italy, which is a country that has always specialised in transforming foreign imports.
Signa was the place that laid the foundations for the modern straw industry, but a vast area later became deeply involved in it, encompassing the basins of the Ombrone, the Bisenzio, the Pesa and the Arno.
This latter, which was perfectly navigable at the time, also provided the main communication route with the port of Livorno, which could be reached directly by the canal, which had been specially restored and modernised to trade hats with the Grand Dukes of Lorrain in 1750.
Later, in 1840, having come to the throne, Grand Duke Leopold II wanted the railway between Florence and Livorno to have a station in Signa to encourage its many businesses in any way possible.
Known as Leopolda, this railway was the first in Italy to have a commercial value. Thousands of workers were employed over the years, and in the second decade of the twentieth century the production of hats reached thirty-five million, most of them for men and many of them exported to the United States of America.
The identity of the product was established through its widespread presence across all of the continents, becoming a true emblem of the greatness of Italian manufacture.
The great message imparted to us by the story of this company, which is still flourishing and prospering, is the constant need to increase creativity and technological innovation, to reorganise the work according to the changing needs of the time and the markets, the necessity of researching new materials that re-work and modernise tradition in their form and substance.
The straw hats produced in Signa were the first known instance of Made in Italy design in modern times, achieving ubiquitous success before the unification of the country with the name “chapeaux de paille d’Italie” or “leghorns”, which became a synonym for straw hats in the Anglophone countries of the former British Empire. The absolute fame of the Tuscan capital was such that the hats were described as “di Firenze” (from Florence).
At present, over forty companies work in the Florentine Plain and the surrounding areas, with around eight hundred employees, which together constitute the oldest and most prestigious district for the production of high quality hats, and not only straw hats, in Italy and therefore the world.
The fundamental feature of this sophisticated product is its excellent and consistent quality over time, which has been ensured by the special selection of the materials used and the perfect knowledge of their peculiar characteristics.
The phases involved in producing the hats have changed over time because of the extensive history of industry, which has been active for centuries, and the complex events that have occurred since its foundation until the present day.
It should be mentioned that, just as human voices were used in musical concerts, the first production tools used in this complex and refined industry were women’s hands, which were smaller than men’s, and acted as natural looms since they were adept at weaving and the subsequent working of the very fine fibres and braids.
The use of the loom, which was already widespread beyond the Alps, was introduced in 1828 in the area around Fiesole, however. This new process came to be known as “the Swiss technique”, and it allowed innovative weaves that were highly imaginative and striking to be brought to the market, complementing those made by hand.
The use of hydrogen peroxide was later introduced to modernise the straw bleaching process. When its use had spread, the Del Panta family founded Italy’s first establishment for its production for commercial use near Florence in 1892. It became so affordable that it was exported throughout Europe for bleaching straw and fabrics.
With the aim of reducing costs to overcome the great crisis, at the end of the century hand sewing of the weaves began to be accompanied by the small machines invented at that time in New York and in Germany, which are still used today.
The weaves are now sewn exclusively by machine by placing the weaves, which are becoming increasingly rare and expensive, on top of one another. When plant fibres are used, as in the example of the agave, which originates from Yucatan, once the hats are moulded into shapes, they are dried out in special ovens or starched and glued.
The hat area around Florence is still a true district that functions as a precise system, trading and producing the raw materials and processing them by hand, with machines that are still made by companies that have been active since the end of the eighteenth century.
The industry still uses wooden and metal shapes made according to historic procedures, producing hats of excellent quality and exporting the throughout the world with great success.
The international clientele appreciates the speciality of what is produced here almost instinctively by virtue of this incomparable, thousand-year old craft that has been safeguarded, enhanced, spread and passed down from generation to generation like a precious treasure.
Camera di Commercio di Firenze