Italy's silk manufacturers are returning from a 40-year sabbatical. They were forced to shut down their spinning mills as they could not face the tough competition from the Chinese market. Recently, luxury designers Valentino and Gucci announced plans to come up with 1,000 silkworm factories.

The return of raw silk production will thrill Italy's fashionistas who once prided in the country's 40,000 spinning mills. Over the past year, a hundred companies have begun breeding silk worms in the northern Veneto region as the demand for home-grown silk grows. This calls for a sharp increase in cost of silk from China, the largest silk producer in the world. In 1970, the cost of Chinese silk was £12/kilogram while it cost £16 in Italy. Today, silk exported from China costs £54/kilogram which is marginally less than its price in Italy.

Silk worms and silk rearing techniques went to Europe from Asia in the 12th century. Soon, cities like Lucca, Genoa, Florence and Venice began exporting silk all over Europe to cater to the demands of the rich and famous. However, the two World Wars changed the social and economic status of Europe. Soon after World War II, industrialisation virtually ended the sericulture industry in Italy.

According to trade body Ufficio Italiano Seta, the total export value of Italian finished products was around US$ 975 million in 2012. This mainly included finished fabric, shirts, neckties, dresses and scarves which are made from Chinese silk. Unioncamere (National Union Chambers of Commerce) reports, private enterprises in Italy are still suffering from economic stagnation after two decades and three years of recession. But, recovery is evident. While a few new ventures opened in the first quarter of 2015, closures have dropped drastically.

Till sometime back, there were chances that a silk scarf with a Made in Italy label would actually use silk yarn spun or fabric woven in China. Only the final finishing would have been done in Italy. Things have changed. According to Fernando Pellizzari, President of Association of Silkworm Breeders, "In China, mulberry trees are disappearing as a result of pollution. Now, silk costs €75 (£54.25) per kilo; which means, with our mulberry trees, we are back on track." Currently, there is high demand for raw Italian silk in the textile industry allowing the Italian silk industry to regain its position in the market.

European countries were lured to produce silk abroad due to cheap labour in Asian countries. However, rising labour costs resulted in the shift to production outside China. The manufacturing costs are still 30 per cent higher in Italy than China. Nevertheless, companies like Piquadro, a leather goods brand, shifted some production to home ground, saving transportation cost and import duty.

Scenario of Global Silk Industry

China, India, Thailand, Japan, Brazil, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Republic of Korea and Iran are some major silk producing countries. Countries like Kenya, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nepal, Turkey, Malaysia, Romania, Bolivia, Nigeria, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Uganda are involved in cocoon and raw silk production in smaller quantities. The major silk consumers include India, China, United States of America, Italy, France, Switzerland, Japan, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Germany and Korea.

Recently, the labour-intensive sericulture industry has developed in Egypt, Brazil, Bulgaria and Madagascar. Silk material occupies a small percentage of the global textile market which is less than 0.2 per cent though it is produced in more than 60 countries. A majority of silk producers are in Asia. This includes 90 per cent of mulberry silk production and almost 100 per cent non-mulberry silk production.


China, the single largest producer and main supplier of silk to the world markets has one million workers in the silk industry. In India, silk sector provides employment to 7 lakh household. There are 20,000 silk weaving groups in Thailand. Sericulture employs the rural poor and prevents their migration to urban areas in search of jobs. All it requires is small investment to produce raw materials.

Italian silk makers spin to revive the dormant industry

Thousands of silkworms are reared on locally grown mulberry leaves in the northern region of Veneto reviving hopes of Italy's 1,000 year old silk industry. Silk makers intend to produce high quality silk. They claim that producing silk locally allows them to monitor quality more strictly. They require extremely clean cocoons and using the silk manufactured locally helps them know how it was obtained. Coldiretti, Italy's largest agricultural organisation is supporting the revival of its silk industry.

The mulberry tree is a natural food source for silkworms. China is virtually killing its silk industry with excessive use of the insecticide, fenoxicarb. Cultivating silkworms is a laborious process and industrialisation is consuming much of the farmlands that are silk producing regions. Dr Long Li, deputy director of the Sericultural Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences said, "Young Chinese people are losing interest in sericulture and many young farmers rush to (the) city to earn more money."

Kurada Keshendra Shetty of Bangalore-based International Sericultural Commission said, "China, which produces 85 per cent of the world's silk, is under pressure from its own economic boom." With the decline in mulberry trees in China, the cost of exported silk increased, giving the Italians the chance to re-establish their legacy. With the rising demand of raw Italian silk, there is an urgent need to start producing silk in new places. Italy is not the only European country starting production of silk in Europe. The Swiss Silk Producers Association also has started silk production.

Challenges for the Italian silk industry

  • The raw and inexperienced industry in Europe faces its own challenges. Recently, the price of raw silk jumped to the highest level in the last 15 years. This is the result of the decline in silk production in China as Chinese farmers turn to other crops.
  • A major drawback when competing with other European counterparts is the small size of the companies. This makes it difficult for them to penetrate foreign markets.
  • Labour laws guarantee protection of workers only if the company has 15 or more employees. European statistics office Eurostat show that almost 47 per cent of the workers are working in companies with less than 10 staff members.
  • The silk makers are worried about the future of government-owned agricultural research centre in Padua, near Venice. To improve its efficiency and as a part of the country's restructuring programmes for agricultural research, the centre is expected to be relocated. This may endanger the live organisms and the money invested till now may be wasted.
  • In the last five years, the productivity gap with the competitors has widened and the unit labour cost has been increasing. This further weakens the competition.

Carving a niche

Como, a town in northern Italy, is known for its silk and scenery. The shops are filled with vibrant silk products. Here you can find some of the best silk in the world. The silk companies in Como supply silk to the world's top fashion brands in Paris, New York and Milan. Today, Como has become the centre for Italian silk production with 800 companies involved in silk production, textile manufacture, dyeing, designing, printing and sales. Around 23,000 Como residents or Comoschi work for this industry. If you own a silk scarf, tie or dress from any renowned fashion brands like Armani or Zara, there is a possibility that the silk used came from Como.

There are two natural reasons why Como has become the centre for silk production: the presence of mulberry trees, essential for breeding silkworms and availability of water. The locals also need to be credited since they foresaw the result of combining these two assets. Today, the final stages of silk production are carried out in Como. Mantero is one of the largest silk manufacturers in Como, Italy.

Digital printing on cotton and silk is in great demand. Therefore, sophisticated digital textile printers are used for digital printing in the factories of Como. Scanned images and designs with several colours are printed with extraordinary results. All printing orders are exclusive. Digital printing caters to the demand of the individual fashion concept and the sampling orders and production are completed within four weeks. Como supplies digital printed silk scarves. The images can be obtained from scanned photos or paintings and there is no restriction in the use of colour. Como also does digital printing on shirts. Printing, cutting and sewing cotton and silk shirts for both men and women is carried out here.

The Italian silk industry aims to survive with the motto, 'Creativity with High Quality'. Their target customers are the new rich people in the world who want luxury goods. Buyers who look for the real Ferraris, real Rolexes and real Hermes will reach out for real Italian silk.