Approaching the lab, you can hear the rhythmic hum of the looms. Inside, you’re welcomed by an exhibit of the products made by the head weavers—colorful woven totes and handbags, house linens in rich patterns, soft scarves in silk and cashmere, and even sandals with woven details made in collaboration with a local footwear manufacturer. Everything is created on the workshop’s antique looms, but the results are often surprisingly modern. Indeed, the craft traditions converge with contemporary design so beautifully, that even big fashion players like Christian Dior have turned to Le Costantine for artisanal production.
“Our founders believe that women, to be free, need to have economic independence,” says foundation President Maria Cristina Rizzo, who sees herself as carrying on the work of sisters Lucia and Giulia Starace (Carolina de Viti de Marco’s daughters), and their cousin Lucia De Viti de Marco (Lathrop Dunhman’s daughter). The three visionary noblewomen established the Foundation in 1982 to continue the spirit and vision of their mothers. Today, that work finds women referred from shelters in Puglia taking up residence at the estate while studying under the foundation’s head weavers. “It’s better that they’re removed from the environment of the abuser,” Rizzo explains.
As well as the fort-like laboratory, the Villa Carmosina grounds also house a bed-and-breakfast and restaurant. When I arrive for a visit, there’s a lunch prepared—in classic Salentine tradition— of fresh mozzarella, local tomatoes, and wine, and Rizzo instructs me in the proper way to eat frisella, the local, biscuit-like bread: dip it in water, slice a tomato, rub it against the wet bread, and top it generously with olive oil and oregano. Soon, an array of local cheeses arrive at the table, delivered by Rizzo’s husband, Giovanni, and a few of the women who help Rizzo administer the weaving initiative. They share a handful of its success stories—women who, thanks to the program, have found new opportunities—and praise Rizzo’s dedication to sustaining the foundation. Fundraising is key, with money coming from a mix of private donations and intermittent government support. Earnings from product sales help keep things going, too.
Rizzo’s official title is “president,” but she prefers to be called a “fighter.” She’s experienced the pernicious effects of gender inequality firsthand and decided at a young age that she wanted to join the battle against it. “I have a strong aversion to any form of injustice, and that includes gender-based injustice,” she says. Rizzo had to enroll in university in Milan behind her parents’ backs; after receiving a degree in law in 1984, she returned to Salento, a region where opportunities for ambitious young professionals were in short supply. “I wanted to give back to my land,” she says.
After gelato and coffee, lunch is over, and it’s time to return to work. Rizzo takes me into the laboratory’s inner sanctum, where the head tessitrici (weavers), clad in white lab coats, work the foundation’s traditional four-shaft looms. Together, they compose a symphony of sound and texture, hands and feet moving rapidly to knit together vibrant threads into patterns of dazzling complexity. Seeing the weavers at work, you understand how this practice evolved into modern-day computing; the patterns have to be programmed into the looms, to put it simply. The work is both physically vigorous and highly technical.
Filomena Paiano, known in the lab as Lena, is considered a veteran amongst the tessitrici. She brings me behind her loom to explain its setup of warp and weft. “It’s a lengthy task that at least two people must do,” she says. Each design uses about four hundred threads, and the initial threading is all done manually, which contributes to the length of time—usually five or six hours—it takes to make a piece of fabric. Lena learned the craft through her sister, a weaver at Le Costantine working under one of its founders, Giulia Starace. “I also worked briefly with Giulia. By the time I arrived, she was an elder, but still around giving us advice,” she recalls fondly.