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From a Sea Silk Seamstress to a Goldbeater: Meet the Master Artisans Keeping Endangered Crafts Alive

These techniques that have been passed down for centuries are at risk of extinction.

Felgueiras in his London workshop. Dumitru Tira Photography

Next month, in London, the doors of various retailers will be thrown open for a handful of workshops: Georg Jensen will bring a master silversmith over from Copenhagen to show how its flatware and accessories are made; Savoir will put those who make its cozy mattresses front and center; and Church’s will reveal how its cobblers repair shoes, demonstrating the footwear’s superior materials and construction in the process. After soaking up these behind-the-scenes moments, visitors will then consult with independent craftspeople and learn how basket weavers or milliners make their wares—and their way—in 2020.

It’s all part of London Craft Week, a festival in its sixth year. “There’s a strong ecosystem for fine art and a gallery sector supporting it, but there’s not really the same network for craft,” says Jonathan Burton, Craft Week’s managing director. “Many who produce extraordinary work struggle to find a market for it.” That grind has spurred the creation of many organizations dedicated to preserving heritage crafts, such as Nordic Safeguarding Practices in Scandinavia, the American Craft Council in the US and the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) in the UK. Some have even issued “Red Lists,” endangered-species-style lineups denoting crafts in danger of dying out in their respective regions. “It allows us to shed light on the stories behind each craft—the people, their skills, their livelihoods,” says Daniel Carpenter, a research manager at the HCA who oversaw the 2019 edition of its Red List. Despite such concerted efforts, a handful are on the threshold of extinction, with only a few individuals left to carry on their traditions. Here, Robb Report spotlights some of the last remaining artisans we have found in Italy, the UK and China. Their knowledge represents a piece of each region’s tangible cultural heritage. At risk of disappearing are not merely beautifully handmade objects but also the tradition that once helped shape a people and history.

If Rumpelstiltskin’s trick of spinning straw into gold sounds impressive, try spinning clam spit into a golden textile. For almost 50 years, Chiara Vigo has been making mollusk secretions into sea silk, an ancient textile that was once a favorite of Mesopotamian kings and Roman emperors for its sparkling hue and strong yet lightweight fibers. Every night in May, when the conditions promise to be just right, Vigo free dives in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Sant’Antioco, the tiny Italian isle she calls home—around 100 dives all told, or as many as it takes to find enough tufts of solidified clam spit. Vigo is thought to be the last in the world who can spin it into sea silk.

Vigo at her loom on the Italian island of Sant’Antioco

Vigo at her loom on the Italian island of Sant’Antioco.  Alessandro Toscano

It’s a tradition practiced by the women in her family for generations, and Vigo, 65, learned the technique from her grandmother. “I could never spend too much time in her shop,” she says. “I liked her world, and I agreed that the craft must be saved, so I refined my knowledge in the field of marine biology.” Vigo worked at a local aquaculture plant, an experience that brought her up close and personal with the animal that makes sea silk possible: the Pinna nobilis, which is commonly known as the noble pen shell and can grow four feet tall. The creature’s secretions, filaments that it uses to anchor itself to the seabed, are known as byssus, and only a true master can render silk from it. Even then, it’s an arduous task. After Vigo carefully harvests the byssus without harming the mollusks—a 100-dive run will yield about 300 grams of raw material—she keeps the hairy clumps in freshwater, which is changed every three hours, for 25 days. The knots are then combed out with a brush, a delicate step, as byssus can be up to three times finer than human hair. Then the filaments are twisted on a juniper spindle into silk thread and, from there, soaked with a trade-secret brew of lemon juice and algae. After, they shine like gold, and Vigo weaves it into fabric on a loom. She repeats these steps over and over, as there’s typically very little yield per clam: The average noble pen shell will render a mere five centimeters of precious silk.

Yet despite the labor involved, Vigo refuses to cash in on her craft. Her grandmother insisted she take a “sea oath”—prohibiting her from selling her work—before embarking on her first dive. Instead, she gives the silk fabric, considered a good-luck charm, to the studio visitors she deems need it the most. “What I have must be safeguarded,” she says. “I must keep it free from commercialization, just as my grandmother did.”

Chiara Vigo practices the ancient craft of spinning sea silk

Chiara Vigo working with sea silk.  Alessandro Toscano

Her craft is under threat not only because she’s believed to be the last on earth to practice it—neither of her two daughters has yet taken up the vocation—but also because its materials are endangered as well. A new pathogen has ravaged the noble pen shell’s numbers since 2016, landing the clams on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s critically endangered list in December. But Vigo is not willing to compromise when it comes to finding the right apprentice. “It cannot be entrusted to just anyone looking for work,” she says. “It requires your entire existence.”

Vigo isn’t the only one struggling to enlist a worthy student. On Italy’s mainland, another artisan finds the future of his life’s work in doubt. A master goldbeater, Marino Menegazzo has perfected a craft that is exactly as it sounds: He hammers gold ingots into sheets so fine they are a mere five-millionths of a centimeter thick. He’s the last person in Italy—and, likely, in all of Europe—who still makes gold leaves by hand (and hammer). That reality particularly stings for Menegazzo, 66, as he has always worked in Venice, a city that has a long history of goldbeaters. At one time, in the 17th century, more than 300 worked there, and their handmade leaf filled the city’s palaces and mosaics. Menegazzo’s work can be found in the sinking city, too. Most notably, he hammered the gold for the archangel perched atop St. Mark’s Campanile. (His commissions are varied; Menegazzo’s handiwork can just as easily be found in cosmetic face masks and food decor the world over.) Today, his competitors press ingots with machines rather than by hand, a shortcut Menegazzo and his family are not willing to take.

Marino Menegazzo with a strip of gold in his Venice workshop.

Marino Menegazzo with a strip of gold in his Venice workshop.  Marco Zorzanello

“My grandfather opened this laboratory in 1926,” says his daughter Eleonora, who helps with the packaging and sales. “What my father makes, it’s not like other gold. Here you buy a feeling, a soul. It’s not a simple foil.” She, her twin sister and her mother are all involved in some part of the business, but they have no interest or experience in goldbeating. “We’ve tried for many years to find someone who will learn, but it’s very difficult. You must have strength, coordination, memory and a passion for this work. If you don’t love it, you can’t do it. It’s impossible.”

She’s not kidding about strength. Making a leaf requires alternating between four heavy hammers, weighing 18, 13, 9 and 7 pounds each. You’ll beat the metal for up to two hours (around 30,000 hammerings). At the end of your day’s labor, you’ll have just two to four leaves to show for it. And the hammering is just one of the steps in an already tricky process, which includes melting down a 24-karat-gold ingot, reshaping it in a small mold, feeding it through a roller and cutting it into stamp-size squares. Why go through the trouble? As per the Menegazzos, handmade leaf is finer and more resilient than industrial grade. Yet few appreciate the distinction. “We haven’t seen much increased demand over the years,” Eleonora laments. “But we’re trying. My father wants to create a machine that can mimic his beating for us.” It’s this final admission that signals Menegazzo’s resignation to his handicraft’s demise.

Marino Menegazzo's gold.

Marino Menegazzo’s gold.  Marco Zorzanello

“It’s very difficult to learn or revive a craft based on resources alone. On a one-to-one, apprenticeship basis, you have someone to tell you where you’re going wrong,” says Carpenter. “But, understandably, many can’t afford to step away from their production and train somebody. Initially, at least, an apprentice is a financial hit. It’s a big risk for a small business.”

Difficult, yes, but not impossible. Thousands of miles away from Menegazzo’s and Vigo’s apprentice-less crafts, Beijing-based Zhang Xiaodong has fashioned himself the new master of a once-forgotten art, with only history as his teacher. His medium of choice is dragon-scale bookbinding, an ancient practice that dates to the Tang Dynasty but died out in the 17th century during the Manchu conquest. A work made with this method bears characteristics of both book and scroll: It can be rolled up, but unfurling it reveals bound pages. A sliver of a larger illustration is printed on the far right of each page, and the pages are staggered so that, when laid flat, these “scales” form the complete image, which can extend 100 feet or more. The books were valued among the elite of a thousand years ago, and Zhang arranges his modern-day works in a sculptural manner for exhibitions. “The work blurs the lines between art and book, which I found quite interesting,” says Ying Kwok, a curator who selected Zhang’s Diamond Sutra for a 2018 show in Hong Kong. “We had a demonstrator present it. He wore white gloves and used specific tools designed by the artist to flip the pages so that the intricate content could be fully appreciated.”

Zhang Xiaodong’s Dream of the Red Chamber and Diamond Sutra.

Zhang Xiaodong’s Dream of the Red Chamber and Diamond Sutra.  Courtesy of the Artist

Zhang mastered the technique only after a great deal of research. In particular, he studied at the Forbidden City Palace Museum, which houses one of the last remaining ancient dragon-scale books. The artist pored over the piece before attempting to replicate it, sourcing authentic materials such as rice paper, bamboo and wood. That level of precision is key: When cutting pages, an error of even one-hundredth of a centimeter can lead to misaligned pages. Zhang has made only a handful of dragon-scale books since he began in 2010, owing to the time each requires—his longest, at 1,766 pages, took him four years to complete. “When I first heard of dragon-scale bookbinding, I didn’t think of it as an ancient method but immediately thought of its future,” says Zhang. “I felt the art’s vibrant energy.”

It’s a resurrection worth celebrating in a broader context as well, as bookbinding is one of the most endangered crafts globally. Once a revered practice, bookbinding by hand has been largely phased out in favor of machines that can churn out volumes much faster and cheaper. As a result, cities are lucky to have even one bookbinding artisan: Abd El-Zaher is the last shop in Cairo, Vo Van Rang is the sole practitioner in Ho Chi Minh City and Henry Bookbinding marks itself the last on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, once a thriving center of the trade. “Humans have been making books by hand for millennia, and it’s terrifying to imagine that this art might die out during our lifetime,” says Hugo Macdonald, who traveled the world speaking with various artisans for Useful/Beautiful, an exhibition on craft that he curated last year at the Harewood House in Leeds, England. “Nothing can replicate a book that’s been made by hand from scratch.”

Zhang Xiaodong’s Dream of the Red Chamber and Diamond Sutra.

Zhang Xiaodong’s Dream of the Red Chamber and Diamond Sutra.  Courtesy of the Artist

Like Zhang, Pedro da Costa Felgueiras taught himself his all-but-extinct craft. If anything, his mentors tried to un-teach him. “When I first told one of my teachers about my lacquers, she said, ‘Give them away. That’s so much work. Nobody wants to use them,’ ” Felgueiras recalls. Thankfully, the London-based artist didn’t heed his conservation-and-restoration instructor’s words, instead digging deeper into the world of paint pigments via A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, from 1668. He then gathered raw pigments for his lacquers and paints to mimic the forgotten recipes used centuries ago. “I think I got them because I was pushy,” he says with a laugh. “I just started experimenting, and it grew from there. I was completely hooked.” His products, which are now used in high-end interior restoration, are not easy to make from scratch, though, and some pigments can be tricky to find, even for the enterprising Felgueiras. Only one man remains who stirs blue verditer for him, for instance. (“He’s quite old now. I don’t know where I’m going to get it from when he dies.”) Felgueiras grinds these pigments by hand, then adds some oil to make paints, creating colors that are more vibrant and last longer than anything you’ll find at the hardware store. (He disdainfully refers to modern-day colors as “plastic.”) Some hues, meanwhile, are lost to history, such as Indian yellow, which was made from urine extracted from cows that were fed exclusively mango leaves, or mummy brown, formulated by grinding up, yes, Egyptian mummies.

Ask most craft festivals what the big draw is for artisans and they’ll tell you that, other than offering general exposure to the public, the events encourage new collaborations by bringing together independent makers and high-profile brands. “You’ve got people who have very traditional, very exceptional skills,” says London Craft Week’s Burton. “We look to see if there are opportunities for them to use those skills in a different context. There’s a might of creative collaborations that come out of it. People meet each other, they start talking.” Success stories certainly exist (if not at Craft Week, then via other methods of discovery): Chanel, for instance, purchased Maison Lemarié, one of the last remaining decorative feather houses, in 1996, after years of successful collaboration. In addition, LVMH acquired Les Tanneries Roux, one of the last French workshops specializing in calf hides, in 2012, to bolster its leather offerings.

Felgueiras mixing yellow paint.

Felgueiras mixing yellow paint.  Dumitru Tira Photography

Angraves, a rattan-weaving workshop in Leicestershire, England, follows the saved-from-the-brink narrative. After almost 100 years in the wicker-furniture business, the family-owned company announced it was going under administration (a British version of bankruptcy) in 2010. Of its 35 employees, only 2 remained who knew the traditional techniques. Each had been practicing for more than 40 years. Then a longtime client, Lulu Lytle, a cofounder of furniture manufacturer Soane Britain, came to the rescue. “I only realized how hard it was to find these weavers in Britain when I set out to buy an Edwardian rattan sofa,” she says. “A combination of fear of losing these specialists’ skills in England forever and, honestly, a need to fulfill client orders was the impetus. So I bought the raw materials and machinery from Angraves’ administrators and rebuilt the workshop.” Now run by Lytle and Soane, it’s the only British rattan workshop, preserving a craft that was intensely popular in England and continental Europe in the 19th century. The scarcity of its practitioners has something to do with the corner-cutting competition. Instead of using genuine rattan and shaping it by hand, larger manufacturers import cheaper material from abroad and bend it with machines. They’re not the only one that has struggled: Erica Larsson is the last rattan weaver in Sweden, and Goh Kiok Seng and his son count themselves the only ones left in Singapore.

Creating a single rattan piece can take days, weeks, even months. When the raw palm arrives, it must first be soaked and steamed so that it’s soft enough to weave. Only once it dries does the material contract and hold its new form. It takes time and experience to understand the material and how it might bend before it breaks. “It’s rewarding but extremely labor-intensive,” says Mick Gregory, one of the veterans. A U-shape sofa that Soane Britain made measured 34 feet, he recalls, and took two months to complete; a headboard for an American client took a month.

An Angraves artisan making a rattan ripple console.

A Soane Britain artisan making a rattan ripple console.  Angraves

What these rattan weavers don’t have to worry about, however, is apprenticeship. Soane has introduced a mentorship program, which has encouraged new weavers to join up, effectively ensuring that the craft will survive another generation. A robust 14 weavers now staff the workshop. “One of our team members came on only two months ago,” says Gregory. “I work alongside him very closely so that I might pass my knowledge on.” The future of his craft depends on it.

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