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Florentine straw hats


Prestige of the area and a tradition started in the 1700s

by Cherry Bells

“Here lies Domenico Sebastiano Michelacci from Bologna who was the first to sell the hats to the British and made himself, Signa and the nearby towns rich with the straw hats business”. This is the inscription on a tombstone in the church of San Miniato inSigna, just outside Florence.

Actually it was right at the beginning of the 1700s that Michelacci strived to find the secret “recipe” for the perfect “paglia” (straw). After various studies and trials, the perfect formula was found and the first hats made in Signa were put on the British markets. The result was a unique product of the highest quality which still attains customers all over the world as it did then. The secret? The manufacture and main material used, straw.

The raw material, straw for hats, is obtained by the manufacture of particular varieties of wheat (especially “semone” or “Santa Fiora”), the cultivation of which is usually on lands free of organic materials, in mild climates. This is the reason why the Tuscan area between the rivers Arno, Bisenzio and Ombrone is especially suitable for this cultivation: this climate makes it possible to obtain varied fibres and polychromies but unique at the same time. When the plants are ripe, they are uprooted and the stems are laid out in the sun for three days and then gathered in bunches. In the 18th century the wheat was uprooted before ripening and whitened under the sun to then be treated by the “trecciaiole” who slowly wove the stems. This job has been partially substituted by sophisticated machines today. This is how these creations which are loved by customers all over the world were born, a real and true prestige of the area.To support the Tuscan companies in the promotion and business of the hats on the main foreign markets, the consortium “Il Cappello di Firenze” was constituted in 1986 with 15 companies associated today, united in a Made in Tuscany production.“We want to safeguard the value of manual skill, that exclusive, Made in Italy craftsmanship which is able to overcome the competition in the world coming from the emerging countries. A century-old tradition binds us which is still very much alive and sees the hands of the skilled milliners transform straw into unique models,” Giuseppe Grevi, president of the Consortium, explains. “The production of our companies is not just for trading but also film directors and international artists turn to us asking for models for their works”. The care given to the materials, the manual skill in the execution and the quality control are the elements which distinguish the product. From the creative ability of Florentine craftsmen the combinations of straw with different materials is the result, such as satin, silk, lace, feathers; asymmetric shapes and structural arrangements are what make Florence’s straw hats immediately recognizable. If at the start of the 19th century, the refined hats of Florence were worn by fashionable ladies in Europe and America (for the first journeys on transatlantic liners and later on airplanes), today the Florentine straw hats are exported all over the world especially in the United States, Japan, China and Russia.