I Penelope greca an tin Calavrìa / The Greek-Calabrian Penelope
Calabrian handicrafts have always been of primary importance to the economy of the Greek-Calabrian villages and hamlets. It is related, in all its manifestations, to some very ancient cultural traditions and therefore, has given rise to a production full of spiritual and cultural content.
Woven articles are a great example of this, and refer back to an art-form loaded with symbolism, ideal for fostering sharing and socialisation among women, and, constituting one of the most fascinating archetypes, which as far back as Ancient Grecian times represented women with spindles and distaffs, whether they were the Sovereigns of Olympus to the Queen of Ithaca. Penelope herself, even in the aporias in the Odyssey regarding her, sits at the loom, becomes the emblem of fidelity and of silent determination, despite being suspended on the brink of expectation. These characteristics came to be fundamental to the Hellenistic ideal of woman, queen of the domestic hearth; a woman who, from dawn, worked in the fields, or washed clothes in the river; sitting down by her loom to weave.
Skill at weaving was one of the virtues which might make a man fall in love with a girl and choose her as his bride.
The loom was an important item in a girl’s dowry. Often the craftsman who built it might be her fiancé, who made her a present of it. Her trousseau also included bed and table linen hand-woven by the girl and her mother, who did their utmost to display their skill as weavers. A space in every home was reserved for the loom: an entire room in stately homes, a corner of the bedroom in the most modest dwellings.
Hand weaving/ To fènima me ta chèria
The art of weaving in Calabria is very old and despite some significant economic and geographical downsizing, some centres of excellence remain active within the area, reproducing fine silk, wool, linen and hemp products, following the most ancient norms of the tradition.
The Reggio-Calabrian textile industry’s flagship was, from the Norman-Swabian domination on, the production of silk. Introduced here by the Byzantines between the ninth and eleventh centuries it spread to the rest of Italy. The port of Reggio, during the annual fair, established by an edict by Frederick II, welcomed merchants from many areas of Europe including Venice, Spain, France, England and Flanders. Between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries, thanks to the exemptions and privileges conceded by Emperor Charles V, Reggio’s silk industry produced cloth exported to the whole of Europe, reaching its commercial peak in the seventeenth century although it began immediately to show signs of decline due to the taxes imposed by the Spanish Kings of Naples. During the second half of the eighteenth century these dues became even heavier due to the Cassa-Sacra tax, imposed by Federico IV of Bourbon to compensate for the disasters caused by earthquake of 1783.
Of the seven General Fair centres of the Kingdom of Naples instituted by Frederick II, the first two in Calabria, as indicated by the Edict, were Cosenza and Reggio; later, between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Catanzaro also distinguished itself. In Reggio Calabria, renowned for the high quality of its silks, were the mills of Villa San Giovanni, where there was also a royal silk-manufacturing school, set up during the second half of the eighteenth century.
The older inhabitants of the Calabrian Greek area tell us that during the second half of the nineteenth century nearly every family reared silkworms. In 1847, Edward Lear could smell the distinctive odour coming from the “Palace of Cocoons” in Staiti, where “silkworms seem the life and air, end and material”[i], of the entire village.
[i] Journals of a landscape painter in southern Calabria, &c by Edward Lear, 1852. pp. 53-54
Broom /To spàrto
The Greek-speaking Ionian district of the province of Reggio Calabria has always distinguished itself for weaving using broom, so much so, that in the past it actually invested in industrial plantations on the plains of Bova. The production of handwoven textiles is thriving today in the Aspromonte district near Locri, in particular around Bianco. It is also possible to admire cloth handcrafted according to the ancient tradition, in all the villages in the valleys here, where elderly weavers, the custodians of an art passed down from generation to generation, still live.
The art of weaving is a complete cycle. It starts with growing and harvesting the plants, continues with the production of the thread from the vegetable fibres and ends with the woven cloth.
The Christian matrix is apparent in the ritual that accompanies weaving, in the symbols contained in the decorations, strongly influenced by the Byzantine civilisation. The Greek cross is almost always present, even if interwoven with other symbols, occasionally borrowed from the pre-Christian age, and though not explicit, in some geometrical patterns.
Broom is a floriferous perennial shrub which grows spontaneously in uncultivated areas. The plant chosen for weaving should not be gathered at an altitude greater than 800 metres above sea level, where the so-called carbonara [charcoal burners’] broom grows. Between May and June this shrub carpets the valleys in bright yellow and perfumes slopes and plateaux. But centuries-old experience has taught people that it is best harvested between July and August, when the plant is at its most robust, ideal, therefore, to survive the “attacks” to which the skilled hand of the female weaver will subject it.
Harvesting broom is a tiring activity, especially when the plant adheres to the steep slopes of an outcrop, in which case you need to perform some real acrobatic feats to manage to cut it off at the stem. Some elderly women tell us that, in order to reach the bushes, they often had to lie flat and dangle waist to head, over the edge of a cliff, arms outstretched to reach the stems and cut off the plant with a special runca [billhook]. Harvesting was, therefore, a job in which the whole family took part, young and old, men and women, in a spirit of a family cohesion based on a strong Christian matrix and necessary to an autarchic kind of economy.
Harvesting broom and weaving at the loom
Dialogue with a women who speaks about broom, how to harvest and weave it.
Q: Good morning madam. We would like to ask you something about broom. How was it gathered? When did you gather it, in the morning?
A: When we went up to the highest areas, we left home before dawn when it was still dark, because we had to walk a lot before reaching all the places among the mountains. We often had to climb up close to the ravines. So we left home around four o’clock, even earlier.
Q: And were you away from the house all day?
A: Yes, we got back home in the evening, because gathering broom requires a lot of work.
Q: And what did you do?
A: First, we walked among the broom and cut off the tops with a billhook, Then we gathered them in bundles and carried them on our heads, in a basket or wrapped in a sheet. We took them to the river, on the backs of donkeys (those who had them); otherwise, the men carried them on their shoulders, the women on their heads. The following morning only we women came back, with daughters, nieces, sisters and granddaughters, down to the river, and heated a big cauldron of water and boiled the broom in it, adding a little ash to soften the harder bits. The bundles had to be turned over and over again to make sure they cooked evenly. When the broom changed colour it was ready, removed from the cauldron and placed in a big hole we dug in the river bed, and covered with stones so that the water wouldn’t carry them away. They had to stay there for eight days, that is, until the bark was ready to be worked on.
Then we removed the broom from the water and, kneeling down, we rubbed it carefully and vigorously on the sand, until we separated the fibres. Then we tied it all into bundles again, washed them in the water and then laid them out in the sun to dry out. When they were dry we pounded them on a rock using a large stone or a wooden bat to remove any remaining impurities and, so, turned the fibre into pulp with our hands, then took the waste, and put it too out to dry in the sun.
Then we began carding the broom. The “comb” was a wooden board with nails with their points facing upwards. This was fixed to a chair so that it wouldn’t move while being turned into yarn. The carded broom was divided into two classes. The better, softer kind was used for finer garments and for the best-quality bed linen to be put in a trousseau; the coarser, less prized, thicker, rougher fibre, was used to make wicks, heavy blankets, rugs to spread on the ground when eating in the fields, pezzare, that is, floor mats and, finally to make knapsacks for shepherds.
The yarn was then wound into skeins, which were also put into water, soaped and rinsed in the river, then boiled again in a copper cauldron with ash until the fibre was bleached completely. The white fibre was used to make bed linen; other items required that it be dyed.
Everything required to dye the yarn also came from the mountains, the valleys and the fields. Now I’ll tell you how this was done. We put herbs and the bark from trees to boil in water for several hours. The bark of the pomegranate gave us pale yellow; the ancient euphorbia, or spurge, which resembles yellow hemp, produced a golden yellow dye; the bark of the oak, chestnut, walnut or alder was used to produce various shades of brown; ash and fern were used for light green; olive leaves for dark green; the roots of the madder for red and rust; indigo, copper and vinegar for blue; black grapes for wine-red, pink, a greyish red, and a reddish hue. After that, we steeped the yarns coloured by the various herbs and bark, in boiling water to which we added salt and lichworth to fix the colours. When dry, the yarn was arranged in hanks, ready for the loom.
Q: But are there so many herbs in the valleys?
A: Yes, and we collect them and bring them home to use them for lots of things; in the old days, we used them even to cure diseases. As the saying goes, “God has provided the disease and the medicine.”
Q: But you were saying something about the loom …
A: Yes, certainly. We women would spend the whole day in the fields and at the loom. Weaving and working in the fields were our main occupations from when we were girls. We worked at the loom by day and by night, but never on a Sunday.
Q: But why, because it was the Lord’s Day?
A: Yes, yes. The older people used to say said that “the work you did on a holy day will be carried off by a storm”, also, “he who sows to Sunday, sows wheat but gathers lentil “; therefore, no one worked on a Sunday.
Q: So, you wove every other day of the week. Do you remember any of the old songs?
A: Yes, there is a famous one that goes: “I always spin, always spin, / what I had, I have still: / Monday I put in the distaff / Tuesday I do not touch / Wednesday is a holiday / and Thursday I make bread; / I make the pasta on Friday / and on Saturday I patch!”
Q: But in addition to the Christian faith, there are other popular beliefs?
A: Yes. At the passage of a funeral procession you had to stop weaving, because it was thought that otherwise the deceased would find it harder to leave; and if there was a seriously ill person in the house, on his deathbed, you had to stop spinning so as not to increase his suffering.
Q: And what patterns are woven into the fabric? Are they very old?
A: The designs are all old and go back to the era of Byzantine rule. We learned them from our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers and teach them to our daughters, even today.
Most interesting are the mattunarico, a cross inside a square shape, square or rectangle; the grecuci, or rose, that is, four rose petals encased in a lozenge; the fricazzanèddhu, also has a lozenge; the biankisano, with crosses. The most important colours are red, blue, green and yellow.