There is no question that grenadine ties have become a staple in many wardrobes: they brighten up a dull outfit with their particular texture, they rarely collide with other patterns, and they are an excellent option when you’re unsure about the accessory to choose.
But what exactly is grenadine?
First of all, grenadine is a small miracle of sartorial tradition, since its making employs, even today, machines that originated in England during the Industrial Revolution – or their direct descendants.
Grenadine fabric is produced with a gauze-style weave, often referred to as a Leno or Cross weave. It involves two warp yarns twisted around the weft yarns in order to provide a strong yet sheer fabric. The structure is similar to the English gauze bobbinet tulle; bobbinet tulle was the first machine-made gauze to be produced, when John Heathcoat invented the bobbinet machine (also called Old Loughborough) in 1808.
However, everyone knows original grenadine is produced exclusively in Como, a small town in northern Italy you may have heard of because rich celebrities do love a mansion overlooking a beautiful lake.
The wooden looms used in Como to produce grenadine weaves are usually referred to as Jacquard looms, but they are in fact descendants of the English gauze machine invented by John Heathcoat – only upgraded to produce a more elaborate weave. Even the Italian word for grenadine is a tribute to the English gauze: “Garza a giro inglese” means “English weave gauze”, and the two varieties of grenadine are respectively referred to as Garza fine (or Garza piccola) and Garza grossa.
It’s not clear how this technique travelled from the Old Blighty all the way down to Como, but it seems to have passed through France:
“Lyon: an important French center for silk machine laces. […] A fierce competition begun between France and Britain: the English inventions – the Warp Frame (1775) the organ barrel for automatic patterns (1780) and Dawson wheels, also for patterning (1807) – were quickly copied in France, while the English were also quick to apply the French Jaquard. In 1885 an old Loughborough was smuggled across the Channel. In England, Heatcoat had used these machine for cotton nets. In France, because of import restrictions on cotton, silk was used, with great success, and nets such as Meklin, tulle illusion, and black grenadine were soon being made.”1
The Industrial Revolution and two wars played a crucial role in shaping the economies of many countries of what todays is known as the European Union – and the history of many traditions born in the 20th century are certainly worth researching and upholding.
Como’s tradition of silk-making, however, dates back to the 16th century, when the Duke of Milan – under whose jurisdiction Como fell at the time – made the decision to promote sericulture. At first, Como established itself as a crucial part of the initial process of silk-making through the breeding of silkworms and the yard spinning, whilst the weaving process used to be almost exclusively executed in other European cities (Lyon above all).
Only in the 20th century and especially after WWII did Como become the sovereign maker of silk in all aspects of its process – from sericulture to the spinning of the yarns. Other European cities did not survive the aftermath of the wars and ceased to be textile centers, propeling Italy – specifically Northern and Central Italy, and the centers of Como, Biella, and Prato – towards a second Renaissance of the textile production.
Today, sericulture is no longer part of the silk-making process that happens in Italy, due to the elevated costs of an activity that cannot be supported by technology and remains reliant on principally human labor in a hands-on job. In modern days, the silk yarns come from China or Brazil, and they are dyed and woven in Italy.
Fermo Fossati and Seteria Bianchi are perhaps the most renowned and appreciated makers of grenadine in Como.
The former is the oldest silk-making company in Italy – the third oldest in Europe after the British Vanners and Stephen Walters & Sons. They have been associated with neckties since the early 1900’s, when ties made their appearance as an accessory to embellish the necks of European gentlemen.
However, you might be more familiar with Seteria Bianchi, which produced the fabrics for the Brioni jackets worn by Daniel Craig in 007 Casino Royale. If you’re a car aficionado, you might know that Seteria Bianchi also provided Mercedes Benz with the interiors of the concept car F125. The list of prestigious clients goes on, culminating with Sartoria Gammarelli, which is the official supplier of clothes for the Church and, by extension, the Pope. On their website, they state that they can provide over 100,000 patterns for their fabrics, and that the selection of textiles is just as broad; they even offer a mind-blowing textile fiber made of silk wrapped in pure gold.
Ettore Bianchi, the former owner of the Seteria, wrote the International Dictionary of Textiles, published in Italian in 1997, from which I took the liberty to translate “grenadine” (“Garza a giro inglese”): “A fabric quite common in the past, now forgotten, which was employed to make shirts and colonial uniforms in Tropical areas due to its incredible breathability. The fabric employed is cotton, and the weave is an English gauze in which two warp yarns are twisted around the weave and around the weft. The weight is between 150 and 250 gr/m2, but the open gauze weave makes it a quite light and breathable fabric that is excellent in presence of harsh climates such that of the Tropics. This fabric has been also employed to produce curtains.”2
There is still much for me to discover about this incredible fabric, and my sources in the United States are limited to what I can find on the Internet. I am certainly going to research the topic further the next time that I return to Italy, and I hope I’ll be able to provide even more details about grenadine and its history when I get the chance to talk with those who make it.
Or, perhaps we should just enjoy the beauty of grenadine and only wonder what brought it to us throughout the centuries of textile traditions in Europe. Sometimes I am torn between the desire to acquire knowledge and to indulge in the poetry that lies in the unknown.
The Romantics felt outraged by Isaac Newton’s theory of light, as they thought he stripped poetry out of the rainbow; the moment magic had a name and an explanation, it stopped being inspiring. The recent solar eclipse made me reflect on this exact thought; we all knew what was coming and why, but perhaps in our knowledge we missed the poetry of the event. Darkness overcoming light, only to let light forcefully shine again – so bright that the human eye cannot even stare at it.
“Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,” reads one of the most beautiful poems of our era.
For the time being, let us enjoy the things we don’t know, even if it is just the obscure history of a woven fabric coming from a distant, lake-side city in Italy.
2. E. Bianchi: Dizionario internazionale dei Tessuti, Tessile di Como, 1999.