Thursday, 12 August 2010

Genoa, jeans and the Tree of Life

A few weeks ago, I met Roberta Chioni, a weaver who lives in the hills above Genoa. From the garden of the old hunting lodge where she lives and works, you can see forest and sea and smell the pine trees.
Roberta showed me some of weavings and described her work like this:

“Dentro lo schema ortogonale, necessario e rassicurante, di trama e ordito, muovo i fili per sperimentare le infinite variabili di luce e colore offerte dall’intreccio, per intrappolare nella tela frammenti di storia, personale e collettiva. Compongo materiali lontani tra loro – fibre naturali e pellicola cinematografica, merletti e fotocopie, fili metallici e policarbonato – per ricucire legami e lacerazioni. Spesso la creazione esce dal telaio e ricerca dimensioni spaziali monumentali che dialogano con l’ambiente circostante”.

"Within the necessary and reassuring grid of weft and warp, I move the threads - endless fluctuations of light and colours are offered by the way they interlace; I catch fragments of individual and collective history and trap them in the fabric. I combine different materials – natural fibre and film, lace and photocopies, metal wire and polycarbonate sheets – in order to mend broken bonds and rips. The tapestry often spills out of the loom and goes in search of monumental dimensions which converse with the environment."
Roberta also told me how the most quintessential of Genovese patterns, the 'mezzaro' or Tree of Life, arrived in Italy. These hangings or palampores came originally from India in the 17th century, but were soon adapted to local fashion and tastes and were worn as exotic printed headresses by the best-dressed women in town. They wore the pattern growing up into their hair, sprouting wonderful fruit, birds and leaves. On the best mezzari, you can still see the marks from the hair grease of these incredible 18th century coiffures.

The other Genovese cloth story is that of 'gene' - the original denim which was manufactured here in the 15th century as a working men's fabric, as well as a canvas for painting. We were lucky enough to see some of these ghostly paintings in the Cathedral Museum, executed in white on rough blue canvas. They were recently discovered when an old monastery on the outskirts of town was being refurbished as a home for the mentally ill.
In those days, 'gene' was plain woven and dyed as finished cloth in indigo. It was only when production spread to Nimes, that the warp was pre-dyed - producing 'de-Nimes'. The final metamorphosis of denim came in the 19th century, when American mills began weaving the cloth on a drill or diagonal weave in order to make the fabric stronger.

On my map, I've printed a very small mezzaro onto one of my last remaining pieces of indigo cloth and grown it out of the top of Italy.

I also now have my very own Tree of Life, which my friend Silvia bought for me at a very ancient Genovese cloth emporium. I think I will hang my mezzaro in the house so that we can sew life directly onto it. Thank you Silvia xxxx

Many weeks later, I was cycling rather fast down Gipsy Hill when I spotted this 'mezzaro' hanging upside down in a downstairs window.

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