A Wovember wool spotlight: La Fierucola, Florence, and the sheep of Italy

While it is still Wovember, I want to spend a little time sharing some new to me local sheep and to introduce you to the wonderful wool they produce. The history of Italy and of wool are tightly intertwined and extend across a network of European wool trading that pre-dates the formation of the state of Italy in the 19th century. By the 13th century Florence was already an important wool centre and this is reflected across the city not simply in the stone reliefs on the Chamber of Commerce for Industry, Artisans and Agriculture that face out over the River Arno (shown below), but in street names, modern day business and through to its current role in the fashion industry, and as home to Pitti Filati.

Today, I will share breeds of sheep whose names may be less familiar than many of those we encounter in our hand knitting and whose qualities as wool producers may be overlooked were it not for the artisans and shepherds who champion them through events such as that organised by La Fierucola.

The festival of San Martino, which takes place on the 11th November, provides the focal point for the 2 day fair in Florence celebrating all things wool. This year the core theme of sustainability was complemented with a focus on natural dyeing and eco-printing. The fair combined a market of vendors with a series of talks and demonstrations and a ‘hands on’ area where children through to adults could experiment, play and take workshops with wool. This being Italy, there was also food… including sheep cheese, meat and assorted related delicacies. This being Italy, and Florence in particular, the venue in Piazza Santa Croce was also pretty spectacular.

I’ve wanted to go to this fair for a number of years now, but usually it coincides with olive picking. This year however, the hot dry summer meant the olives were ready earlier than usual and we’d picked the previous weekend. So on the Saturday I found myself standing on the train station platform, willing my delayed train to arrived before I completely froze. However, by the time I arrived in in Florence, the temperatures and I had both warmed up a little and the walk along the River Arno down past the Ponte Vecchio to Piazza Santa Croce was very pleasant.

Once there the first stall packed with colourful skeins of yarn that caught my eye was that of Lana Tingola Fiemmese and Valentina Ferrarini of Officina del Colore Naturale.

There are lots of things about this stall that made me not only fall in love with the sheep and their yarn, but also made me feel like I’d found ‘my’ people. It was really good to meet Valentina and chat about her dyeing process and to hear all about the Tingola or Fiemmese sheep native to the mountains and valleys of Trentino in the north of Italy.

This feeling was reinforced by the second stall I was drawn to, again by the colours:

You see what I mean, but not just the colours, look at those lovely plump skeins. I was into the skeins and wowed by how soft they were when I looked up and recognised Raffaella of La Piantalana. If you follow me on Instagram or if you attended any of the lockdown virtual Botanica Yarn Fests, you too may have ‘met’ Raffaella and/or her yarn. It was such a thrill to meet her and to chat (and shop) in person rather than online. Her colours are so clear and true.

This yarn is from Gentile (gen-tea-le) sheep of Puglia in southern Italy, from the Fratelli Carrino organic farm in Foggia, which continues the practice of transhumance. If you go to Raffaella’s Instagram you can see her saved story showing the 2022 Carrino transhumance, make sure you have the volume on, it’s pretty magical.

My third stop was something a little different. Verde Filo Lab from Abruzzo in central Italy produce naturally dyed wool yarns, hemp and also natural undyed coloured yarns created by blending different ratios of natural black and white wool from the Sopravissana and Merinizzata Italiana.

Like the Gentile di Puglia, the Sopravissana is regarded as an Italian merino with a lineage back to the Rambouillet or French merino and the breeding practices of the papal states. The Merinizzata Italiana owes its existence to the more recent early 20th century period of sheep ‘improvement’ which involved taking these historic merino types and re-breeding them with modern merino types.

These three introductions are simply that, brief introductions to be followed by a more in-depth post on each, including detailed descriptions of the sheep and their yarn etc. My purchases represent a good geographical sample as well as a range of breeds so we’ll be talking about sheep who live very different lives in very different parts of the country. Unfortunately these sheep do not appear in my English language sheep and wool sourcebooks which instead focus on breeds more familiar to the flocks of English speaking countries. Therefore, what I find and will share is dependent on a combination of what their shepherds told me, my translation of Italian material and a brief but useful article in Tramando, the periodical of the textile art collective of la Fierucola.

Before I finish I want to share a final highlight of the Saturday: I also attended a demonstration and talk about eco printing and indigo with Laura Dell’Erbe of Lalazoo.

Interesting Laura spoke of her aesthetic and preference for use of leaves with their clear forms and range of colours, over and above using the brighter more splashy colours that flowers can offer. Certainly with the combination with indigo I can see her point.

With this I said my final farewells and headed home. I wasn’t able to return on the Sunday as we were already booked on a hike in the Chianti which was also really interesting as we saw ruins and a restored water mill, part of a network which had been central to the agricultural development of area when brigands prevented the safe movement grain any great distance for milling. Perhaps this late season flower I snapped during a break in the hike will give you a hint of one of the colours/dye plant of one of the skeins I purchased on the Saturday.

Until next time when I’ll talk more sheep and share my purchases, take care, happy knitting and I hope your knitting is keeping you warm in body and soul.

Tess xx

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