Italy's silkmakers spin a niche to revive dormant industry

Fri Jul 17, 2015 2:41am EDT
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By Isla Binnie

CASTELFRANCO VENETO, Italy (Reuters) - 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 is a new beginning for a sector that was vital until 50 years ago," said Giampietro Zonta, a jeweler who started producing his own silk last year in order to make a line of bracelets and necklaces made of interwoven gold and silk.

Zonta's company D'Orica has joined forces with a scientific research center and three agricultural cooperatives to produce the silk from scratch. Last year, they harvested 800 grams.

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 which had a combined export value of more than 890 million euros ($975 million) in 2012, according to trade body Ufficio Italiano Seta.

Yet Zonta's project is one of various efforts cropping up across Italy led by entrepreneurs wanting to capitalize on a timid economic recovery to launch businesses tied to the country's traditional specialities – in this case, fashion.

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.    Continued...

A late-developing silkworm sits suspended in the fibres its fellow larvae released as they spun their own cocoons, at the CRA agricultural research unit in Padua, Italy, June 4, 2015. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi