Tuscany Artisans – Embroidery and Linen

The best way to learn a craft was to Andare a bottega, or go to the workshop, although of course there are exceptions to every rule. Michelangelo Buonarroti never had a ‘master’ so to speak, but was said to have learnt how to carve marble through drinking his wet nurse’s milk who was the daughter of a stonecutter. Eventually, as the need to improve productivity grew, so too grew the need to set up formal schools.

In Florence it was the Grand Duke Leopoldo II of Lorena who created the most successful school of crafts in Italy, and the story goes that the same Grand Duke secretly went to the school where he skillfully carved tables and furniture.

It was another member of the Lorena family who revolutionised the world of crafts, The Granduke Pietro Leopoldo, from a male-dominated sphere, to involve women. In the 18th Century he decided to transform convents which were reserved for women, into educational institutions where arts and crafts were taught. Embroidery, up until this time had been a craft practised exclusively by men, except for nuns working in closed convents. From then on all girls schools in Tuscany taught embroidery and weaving as well as reading and writing.

Famous Florentine embroiderys, were produced in the neighbouring town of Pistoia, where the craft of embroidery dates back to the Middle Ages. Initially the embroideries were created for the church and nobile families, but eventually the trade flourished to the point that in 1332 a law was passed to limit trade on luxury items such as embroidery.

With a leap towards more modern times, to the Belle Epoque the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century when the embroidery and linens of Pistoia reached the height of popularity and success and was exported to France. The spread of the linens occured via word of mouth, whereby t, where the sales people along the beaches of Versilia, introduced their precious goods to the middle classes.

Beyond Pistoia there are also the famous laces of Sansepolcro and Tavarnelle. The laces of Tavarnelle are said to go back to the Venetian tradition. Young girls learnt the craft from their mothers in a chain of knowledge passed from generation to generation. Legend has it that the first link of which was a nun from Venice who imported the craft to Tavernelle. The laces of Sansepolcro boast a similar history, though the craft in this case came from the Fiandre, another important centre for this most delicate of the crafts of Tuscany.

In Tuscany the antique art of embroidery lives on, and this is thanks to hard work of the small companies – just think of the province of Pistoia where there are more than 200 small enterprises that make embroidered household linens. The production of the companies is based on the knowledge and experience of their workers, each one an artisan in their own right, a fact which underlines the fact the today’s production is a direct descendent of the medieval methods, done by patient workers and their extraordinary skills.


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