Handicraft – like folklore – reflects one of the deepest traditions of a region's soul. Even in Ticino, today like in the past, the use of materials such as wool, straw, wood or stone are expressions of manual ability, artistic touch, commitment to a constant search for functionality and attention to shapes and colors. Traces of handmade crafts from the past are found in ethnographic museums while specialised stores offer authentic products of contemporary craftsmanship. In some workshops and handicraft centres it is even possible to see the craftsmen or -women at work.
The evolution of crafts and new tendencies
Like in other regions, Ticino experienced fairly rapid socio-economic transformations around the middle of the 20th century and rural activities surrendered to jobs in factories, on constructions sites and in the services industry. The desertion of agropastoral activities and the progressive depopulation of the valleys, including the access to new markets and the appearance of new needs and habits, caused a craftsmanship crisis. Yet, this sector knew how to react and seek other means of expression, reinventing itself through shapes and colors.
The rediscovery of the rural lifestyle, the taste for beauty and the admiration for manual ability led people to look for objects that transpire the authenticity of the region. Objects in wool, straw, wood, ceramics, copper as well as clothing, jewellery, gifts and decorations are on sale in some specialised stores and markets.
Negozio dell’artigianato e Casa della lana (Handicraft Store and House of Wool)
Artis Artigianato e Sapori locali (Artis Handicrafts and Local Flavors)
Casa dell’artigianato (House of Handicrafts)
Wool and Hemp
The rural economy was characterised by autocracy: practically everything that was needed on a daily basis was produced independently. Farming and hemp production provided the fabric to make clothing and linens. Sheep's wool was washed, dyed, teased and spun in a way as to be used to make socks, sweaters, scarves and covers.
The hemp and wool production process are illustrated in different ethnographic museums in Ticino, particularly in the Verzasca Valley Museum in Sonogno located in front of a handicraft store and the Casa della lana (House of Wool). In the village and home of Pro Verzasca (an association founded in 1933 to support local production of handmade goods) the wool dyeing ritual is repeated twice a year (May and October) and visitors are welcome to watch.
Peduli used to be tailored with leftover fabric: Footwear with a sole made of overlapping cloth to obtain thickness of a few centimeters which was then sewn to the shoe's upper part, also made of fabric, with a hemp string. The characteristics of this typically feminine craft can be seen at the Centovalli Museum and Pedemonte Museum in Intragna. Some craftswomen still sell the peduli (Locarno market).
Baskets and conical wicker baskets, objects used daily in the past in rural Ticino, were skillfully woven by using branches that were particularly flexible, such as those from the hazel tree. Skilled artisans still practice this craft and offer their products at city markets.
Making straw was a tradition in the Onsernone Valley where this activity developed already in the 16th century occupying greater part of the population until the end of the 1800s. Used for weaving was the straw from rye that grew in the valley and was harvested in the summer. Like hemp, it was first dried, then the stems were macerated to obtain a raw material to prepare a straw braid, called binda, with which hats and bags were made and sold, even abroad.
The processing of straw is well illustrated at the Ethnographic Museum in Loco. For the past few years, the workshop Pagliarte is active in Berzona where straw is still processed to make hats, bags and accessories in contemporary styles.
Many objects of everyday life were made at home: from the cadòla (a special chest to carry firewood) to the molds for cookies or butter; from goats' collars to polenta plates; from infant's cribs to chests that held the dowry. Chestnut, walnut and ash wood were mostly used. Even this type of manual skill has left many traces that can be admired in Ticino's ethnographic museums.
Soapstone manufacturing was characteristic of the High Maggia Valley and the Museum in Cevio explains the phases of this process used especially to produce containers for preservation and cooking of aliments, lamps, tubs and the traditional stoves of the Alpine region, called pigne.