The straw hats of Signa
Article published by Italian Heart on August 7th, 2015: http://www.italianheart.com.au/2015/08/the-straw-hats-of-signa
In signa in 1714 Domenica Michelacci known as Bolognino, began to cultivate “grano marzuolo” a variety of wheat with small ears and tiny grains in order to have straw for weaving. He sowed it densily so that it would grow longer by seeking out the light in shallow furrows to be able to uproot it easily while it was still flexible. By making use of the widely available hat weaving skills Michelacci made a large quantity of them, he then presented his products on the piazza in Livorno and achived great success, which was soon reiterated elsewhere, especially in England, which ordered the hats in increasing quantities.
The International demand was so great that it became necessary to specialise the production stages and the various processes establishing the time frames and methods. Much of the population in signa was involved in this new form of employment. It became the main industry among the production and manufacturing activities of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany making use of a third of its arable land and around 150,000 paid employees.
Signa was the place that laid the foundations for the modern straw industry.
In 1840, having come to the throne, Grand Duke Leopold II wanted the railway between Florence and Livorno to have a station in Signa to encourage its many businesses. In the second decade of the twentieth century the production of hats reached thirty-five million, most of them for men and many exported to the United States. The product became a true emblem of the greatness of Italian manufacture.
The straw hats produced in signa were the first known instance of made in Italy design in modern times. The absolute fame of the Tuscan capital was such that the hats were described as “di Firenze” (from Florence). At present over forty companies work in the Florentine plain with around eight hundred employees. The fundamental feature of this product is its excellent and consistent quality over time which has been ensured by the special selection of the materials used and the perfect knowledge of their peculiar characteristics.
The first production tools used in this complex and refined industry were women’s hands which acted like looms since they were adept at weaving and the subsequent working of the very fine fibres and braids.The use of the loom was introduced in 1828 in the area around Fiesolo. The use of hydrogen peroxide was later introduced to modernize the straw blenching process.
At the end of the century hand sewing of the weaves began to be accompanied by the small machines invented at that time in New York and in Germany that are still used today. The hat area around Florence is still a true district that functions as a precise system, trading and producing the raw materials and processing them by hand with machines that are still made by companies that have been active since the end of the eighteenth century. The industry still uses wooden and metal shapes according to historic procedures, producing hats of excellent quality and exporting them throughout the world with great success.