If you come on my Tastes & Textiles tour, you’ll meet Romeo and Nadia, two of my local heroes. Not love-struck teenagers defying their families, but two people quietly taking their lives into their own hands and following their dreams.
Before they retired, they worked at a shoe factory near Lucca. But Romeo harboured a burning desire to learn to weave. Until 20 or 30 years ago, many young women were taught to spin and weave, and wove their trousseaux by hand. An 80-year-old woman in Romeo’s village of Convalle still carries on the craft. As soon as he retired, he asked her to teach him the skill. She accepted his proposal, and being an excellent student, he is now weaving for pleasure and for sale.
Romeo found an abandoned floor loom, which he lugged up to his attic and restored. An old bicycle wheel powers his bobbin winder.
The lamp above his loom is a copy of his teacher’s. The old newspaper tacked around the shade directs the light onto the area he’s weaving and keeps it from shining directly into his eyes. A few shelves for spools of thread, and his workshop is complete.
Among jumbled sacks in the adjoining roof space are some filled with antique hemp which he uses for some of his pieces. Hemp used to be grown everywhere in the area. When you’re walking around the hills, you occasionally see depressions which are the remains of pools in which the hemp stalks were retted to free the fibres of the stem.
The fibres were spun by hand with a distaff and drop spindle. A few women can still be found glumly spinning at village festivals.
These days I suspect it’s just theatre and you wouldn’t find them spinning while watching the telly in the evening. Although one goat herd I discovered above Fabbriche di Vallico, who stays up in the alpine pastures all year, spins away the long winter evenings.
Romeo doesn’t set up his own warps. He leaves that task to his teacher. They’re beautifully straight and taut on the loom. She must feel proud to be contributing to the quality of her student’s products, but I hope he’s learning to do it himself for the day when she’ll no longer be capable.
Romeo has made his own the traditional Lucca textile pattern ‘rosa di maggio’, the rose of May. He weaves it in the pure form he learned, but like a musician improvising variations on a theme, he plays with colour, length and width, showing me a new idea almost every time I visit.
His main pieces are household linens: table runners, table mats, napkins, tea towels and small rugs. It’s one of the places I worry about taking clients, because it takes extreme willpower not to buy everything myself.
Romeo’s wife Nadia has discovered her own talents in the enterprise. She and her mother do most of the hand finishing, although Romeo ties fringes while watching football matches.
Nadia’s creative energies go into making adorable stuffed animals from offcuts of the fabric. I give them as presents to the children of families who come on my personalised family adventures.
I met Romeo and Nadia at the annual Festa della Zucca (Squash Festival) at Piegaio, the village below their own.
They travel around to monthly fairs and annual festivals, ranging as far as Forte dei Marmi on the coast and Castiglione di Garfagnana on the slopes of the Apennines. I don’t think it’s for the money. I can’t remember ever seeing them without a smile of contentment on their faces.