Grandeur and Splendor
Stepping inside the room is exhilarating. Eleven large wooden looms, centuries old, arranged in a row, tower up as high as the ceiling. Thousands of strands of yarn extend from each one, forming the warp. Around them, spools with hundreds of radiantly colored thread are arranged by shade. The only sound is the rhythmic noise of the weaver operating the pedals, threading the shuttles that will form the weft, creating the design at the same time as the fabric. The silk is woven using the same techniques, to the same quality, and with the same intricate motifs that made Valencia famous during the Baroque period, and before that, during the Renaissance. This was the city we had hoped to discover. The Valencia of artisans, of silk, heir to the thousands of master silk makers of the fifteenth century, whose work was the foundation of a cosmopolitan, seductive and dynamic trading port, situated right in the center of Spain’s eastern coastline. The city’s intense commercial activity was comparable to that of Venice, Genoa or Marseille, and gave rise to splendid buildings such as the Silk Exchange. One of the hubs on the ancient Silk Road, it was a crossroads of cultures, which coexisted in harmony, shaping the open, hospitable character the city has retained to this day.
Have you ever imagined what your life might have been like in the refined, decadent, Baroque eighteenth century? If you were an aristocrat, you would belong to the new urban elite, and would fritter away a large portion of your income on luxury spending, in a public demonstration of your status. You would dress in the French style, like the rest of Europe, in bright colors or the new, oh-so-fashionable pastel shades. Skirts supported by hoops made of reeds; brocade coats with ruffles and frills; white wigs with ringlets cascading over the shoulders, and handkerchiefs in the new Indian cloth, imported by the English, known as muslin. You would regale your guests with hot chocolate. Your linens would be Maltese; your cotton, English; the fabric of your dresses with their bows and ribbons would come from France; your lace from Venice, and, naturally, all your silk — damask, taffeta, velvet, espolín and moire — would be from Valencia.In the eighteenth century, anyone who claimed to appreciate the finer things in life knew about the skill of Valencia’s silk makers, and the quality of their raw materials. Their silks were unrivaled. Half the city’s population lived from the silk trade, and practically the whole province was involved in its production. It was Genoese velvet makers who had introduced its manufacture, and the Valencian artisans had even made the name their own. The Italian velluto became Valencian vellut, and those who made it, velluters, a term that spread to refer to all silk makers, not only those who made velvet, and became the name of the district in which their workshops were concentrated. There, looms were numbered in their thousands, and their activity was so frenetic that it helped define the appearance of Valencia, its history and its society. Today, only two remnants of the artisanal splendor of that age survive.
A few kilometers from the city, at the Garín factory in the town of Moncada, eleven wooden looms with Jacquard mechanisms, made in 1801, are still used to produce the most highly sought-after and exclusive of silk fabrics, one used to line the walls of many a palace, but worn by very few people. Flowers, bouquets, garlands, plant motifs, ribbons, bows, borders and sinuous lines gradually take shape as the silk is hand-woven with small shuttles. Work progresses slowly. In an eight hour day, a skilled worker produces around 20 cm of fabric. The numbers are unsustainable for any kind of business, which is why the seventh generation of this family firm, which has been manufacturing silk for almost 200 years, agreed to transfer ownership of its premises and its valuable collection of over 3000 pieces to the town council, to create a museum. In exchange, the factory will continue to operate under family management. In 2018, Garín will become the only living textile museum in Spain.Another recently created exhibition center, the Valencia Silk Museum, housed in the Gothic building that was once the headquarters of the silk makers’ guild, is almost a second home to Don Vicente Enguídanos, a venerable velluter, the descendant of four generations of weavers, and the final heir to the secrets of the velvet weaver’s trade. Charming and intelligent, he knows that it is too late to pass on his knowledge, but also that Valencia should not forget the work of the innumerable master craftsmen who turned the city into a capital of the Silk Road, necessitating the construction of the imposing Silk Exchange to accommodate the frenzied commercial activity that they generated. And so he has set up his old loom inside the Museum. “You don’t need to know how to work a machine you see in a museum,” he tells us, “but it is important for it to be there, as a testimony to what it gave to you.”