Como: the silk museum

When I was a child, my primary school teacher (Daniela) towards the end of the school year, came to school with silkworms, to teach us show silk is made. We found the idea brilliant! On the very last day I remember asking her if I could bring home to silkworms, and she hastily said yes – I was thrilled and, possibly, she was just as thrilled as I was: she had found a nice way to get rid of them. My family used to spend the summer in our cottage in the mountains of Val Leventina (Switzerland), where the air is clean and fresh, but where mulberry trees do not grow. I asked my mother is I could fill the trunk with mulberry leaves. She said yes, provided I did not take my bicycle… there was no room for al. So the bicycle stayed at home, the silkworms soon started to spin their cocoons, the butterflies were born and flew away. And I was left “on the ground” for weeks. But the obsession for silkworms did not fade.

Some time ago, just by chance, I happened to be reading about the Museo didattico della Seta di Como, the Como Silk Museum, and decided to take my son. In case you did not know, the city of Como was renown all over the world as the Silk City, and today the Como province is the producer of about 95% of all Italian silk. Is there a better place then, to have a silk museum? What you need to know is that the museum is a didactic one, and most visitors are school groups – though it is open to all.

We arrive one Saturday morning (it is closed in the afternoon) and, as soon as we step in, we have the impression of having just entered the (pre-war, obviously) Aleppo souk: it is full of people who speak loudly, argue, look at fabrics, buy ties and scarves, and so on. It is evident that many people come to the museum just to shop, not to visit… It takes us a while to buy the entrance ticket.

Eventually we make it inside the museum, and the first impression is positive: bright, spacious and airy. It is full of well-preserved objects and machinery, and the exhibit is laid out well: each room is dedicated to a specific work cycle (breeding, twisting, dyeing, weaving, printing and much more) and each machine is provided with a little tag containing simple and concise information. At the entrance, a very nice lady had handed us the map of the 12 rooms (which we never got around to use!) and a booklet with more detailed information and insights (which we had no time to read)

Sadly, there is nothing interactive and nothing to touch: I did not like this part much, but my son Stefano could not care less. I tried to remember all I had learned about silk and we had a pleasant visit. If you do not know anything about silk, then you had better book a guided tour in advance.

The machines are all still working and impressive, some are as large as an entire room; for instance the very huge twisting machine. Another highlight (according to my son) was the room full of ancient manually operated looms.

What my son was most impressed with, however, was a TV showing a video about how women, in the past, used their bare hands (in boiling water) to unravel the silk thread from the cocoons. Stefano watched the video twice, and would have watched a third time if a killjoy mom (me) had not decided it was time to move on.

Among the zillion facts that he learned, 3 he deemed fundamental. Can you tell a 7-year-old child that he is wrong? No, so there we go:

  • the thread of a single cocoon can reach a length of 1500 meters
  • 6 “twisted” threads are needed to obtain a single thin silk thread
  • “raw” silk threads are no longer produced locally but imported from China and Japan

One room my son did not like: the very last one, dedicated to fashion. There were no silk dresses to admire, just petticoats and undergarments. At last, we returned to the shop at the entrance: no one was there and we could browse the products. We were not planning to buy anything, until a little box full of colored cocoons and a white silk thread caught his attention. He wanted to buy it to show it to his teacher (who happens to read us), so we could not say no to him!

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