Following the Silk Route to discover its origins leads us on a Byzantium journey to the Iberian Peninsula and from here to Japan and the Americas. We are in luck, though, as Valencia, its nerve centre, shows us all the routes footsteps, without having to go around the world to discover this mysterious route.
It was the growth of Islam in the Mediterranean that introduced silk in to the Iberian Peninsula in the VIII Century. Mulberries were grown in the rich ground of the Valencian huerta (green belt) and the material was made in the city, in the “Velluters” district.
Today “Velluters” still maintains its former flavour, with large houses and rambling streets. Here, more than 5000 registered workshops were concentrated, and the Colegio del Arte Mayor de la Seda (College of the High Art of Silk) was founded, which is still operational today. Next to it, the Biblioteca del Hospital (Hospital Library), the Gremio de Carpinteros (Carpenters Guild) building and the palaces in the surrounding streets, such as Pie de la Cruz, Moro Zeit, Quart and Guillem de Castro, are all characteristic buildings of the area.
In 1494, Valencia was Spain’s trading city, proof of which is the Lonja de Mercaderes (Silk Exchange Market) building, where traders would gather to barter over their deals. The demographical situation, the influence of Genovese artisans, the mastery of trading, the level of industrialisation and the fashion of silk really caused the sector to boom. The Turia City was a model of production for Toledo and Barcelona, and was more important than Granada.
In the18th Century, the Borbons arrived in Spain and this stimulated the use of silk. It was then that the Royal Factory of the Five High Guilds of Madrid was set up in Valencia, and King Carlos III donated 60,000 reals so that courses on silk weaving could be taught in the San Carlos Fine Arts Academy in Valencia.
Some materials were used on a daily basis, whilst others were more luxurious, such as damasks of silver and brocades of gold. Designs were given names such as Reina (Queen), Valencia, and Rosas y Espigas (Roses and Thorns). The influence of the French courts from Luis XIV to Luis XVI, with regard to design, took hold all over Europe and survived in Valencia thanks to the city’s traditional costumes.
The industry declined due to the widely spread out producers, competition from Toledo, France and the Americas, the tax on silk and the mulberry epidemic, which led to them being substituted by orange trees.
Despite all of this, the silk industry has survived thanks to demand from the Church, for use in traditional Valencian costumes, as well as for decoration. “Espolin” is the most valued type of silk, due to the fact it is still hand made on XVIII century looms, and its name comes from the very instrument used to weave the silk.