Malta Diary Carding, combing, spinning and weaving in the Maltese Islands – all on death row?
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I was not a spinner, nor a weaver, but back in the 1970s I did work in a spinning and weaving factory at Ta’ Qali in Malta and I did spin and weave but with human resource in the capacity of HR Manager and later Acting General Manager.
Spinning and Weaving of cloth is a great slice of Malta’s heritage, first introduced by the “invading” Phoenicians between 2,000 and 1,500 years BC. The Phoenicians were not military invaders. They were merchants and the strength of their commercial activity was mainly based around cloth and cloth dyes, an art they spread around the Mediterranean and as far away as the shores of Britain. In addition they manufactured the first glass through the process of sand scorching and roasting.
In the early 70s Malta’s Prime Minister was then the late Dominic Mintoff and he astounded the western world by becoming the first European and Western Premier to visit Communist China where he was acclaimed with a tremendous welcome, including a choir of Chinese children who sang the Maltese national anthem – in Maltese!
With him he brought back a Chinese Government commitment to establish various manufacturing factories in Malta, including a spinning and weaving mill, a rattan factory, glass recycling and the manufacture of tools. In 1974 I was appointed HR Manager of Malta Spinning and Weaving Mill Limited. Malta provided the stone for the factory to be built, the Chinese brought with them everything else, and I mean everything else, down to the last spindle, screw and drawing pin!
The intention was to eventually employ 1,200 people and under their guidance we began producing superb cloth. I have to state that throughout all my many years of employment and travels in Malta and around the world, I have never yet met people more courteous and as hard-working as the Chinese, some of whom came here as top Chinese texture engineers, technicians and brilliant interpreters who learnt idiomatic Maltese within a few months.
However, sadly, their mechanical spinning and weaving looms were about 40 years outdated and highly labour-intensive. Towards the late 70s, the top Italian cloth manufacturer Prandoni toured our factory and announced his verdict.
“Your factory is a model museum dedicated to the history of spinning and weaving. The equipment is at least 40 years old, very labour intensive and very highly uneconomical to compete with today’s cloth manufacturing”.
By the end of the 70s we had reached an employment of 800 people but the Government very sensibly closed down the mill to avoid further financial losses.
The building was used for a while as a vote-counting place, later converted to a potato and onion central market but it is today a grand Embassy of the United States of America. Maybe the office I then occupied as Acting General Manager in the latter days is now the Office of the US Ambassador! Who knows?
These thoughts flashed through my mind this week when I read an article about the art of hand spinning and weaving in Malta, a very old handcraft tradition that like all other handcrafts is slowing dying away except for a few individuals who are striving to keep the tradition going.
During the Middle Ages and Elizabethan times Malta became renowned for its cotton growing, fields of cotton spreading throughout the islands but these dwindled away when food production agriculture became more locally sought after and more profitable. Down to the present day, although also sadly dwindling, Malta is internationally renowned for its lace-making and the delicate production of lace designs and patterns.
One of those still striving to keep the tradition of hand spinning and weaving alive and kicking is Antoine Vella from his shop in Rabat, Malta. With great and elaborate patience he weaves cotton, wool and silk to manufacture (on demand) clothes, carpets and blankets.
He uses a traditional wooden loom reminiscent of the Middle Ages to card, comb, spin and weave and maintain a long-standing family business and tradition.
Perhaps his most arduous task is that of touring farms that rear sheep and to obtain the wool needed for his processing. This has to be meticulously cleaned from impurities, washed, dried and then spindled. After that begins the patient task of spinning and weaving.
Will Antoine Vella be one of the last still standing? More than probably, yes. Some lace making still takes place in Malta and Gozo but the number of lace makers does not even begin to compare with yesteryear.
Time and tide wait for no man, and as Prandoni told us many years ago, this is all good stuff for museums but in today’s world it is labour intensive, restricted profit-making and largely uneconomical as well as required huge amounts of time which nowadays has become less and less available.
“What he sees with his eyes, he makes”
An attribute made to a gifted artisan.