17 giugno 2022
by Annalisa Cretella

From knot to a knockout beauty 


Fabrics woven using the ancient pibiones or litzos methods to create works of art in the form of tapestries, cushions and carpets, skilfully handcrafted by weeks of work on a traditional loom, so beautiful you are reluctant to use them. But Mariantonia Urru, a textile entrepreneur from Samugheo, in the province of Oristano, who in 1981 founded the company M/U that carried her name around the world, very modestly points out, “they wash easily, even by hand, with soap and water. All you need is a hose in the yard and a bit of detergent. And they last a long time.” “Of course, you shouldn't hang them by the thread, otherwise they stretch,” she adds; it’s best to be clear, you never know with people.

Meeting her was a trip back in time to the Sardinia of her childhood, the brilliance, perseverance and openness to contamination that awarded her a place of honor among the furnishings of prestigious villas and hotels, from the United States to Australia. The story of the business that all started at home when she was just 14 and dreamed of love, she tells us in interview, at her crowded stand at the Salone del Mobile, with a smile and a joke when she sees that my knowledge of embroidery goes only as far as cross stitch.

The word pibiones in Sardinian means grape seed, due to the shape” and is the name given to the tiny loops of yarn (pippiolini) that protrude from the surface of the fabric,  forming the design

Let alone the very difficult pibiones technique that her mother taught her, this ‘grain’ weave typical of Sardinia. “The word pibiones in Sardinian means grape seed, due to the shape” and is the name given to the tiny loops of yarn (pippiolini) that protrude from the surface of the fabric, forming the design.

And litzos? Mariantonia laughs, “litzos means heddles, that is the part of a weaving loom where the threads are threaded for sleying.” Now I understand, sort of. But before talking about her international successes that include collaborations with renowned designers such as Patricia Urquiola, Mario Cucinella, Paulina Herrera, Antonio Marras, Angelika Rösner and Celestino Sanna, to name but a few, who create modern designs with fine Sardinian wool, let's go back to the beginning. Mariantonia, class of 1944, a delightful lady of character as solid as the nuraghi, talks about her childhood and we can feel the warmth of her home, where there was a loom, “like in all the houses in the town,” which is par excellence the center of production of carpets, tapestries and traditional clothes.

“The business came about by chance, I learned to weave to make my dowry when I was 14. My mom taught me. I made myself sheets, blankets, tablecloths. That said, in Samugheo, everyone weaves; there are many women of my age who worked in crafts and made carpets, only then their children didn’t follow them, while mine wanted to keep it going.”

“I got married first, though,” she points out: at almost 23. Then she had four children, all boys. Gian Bachisio, Antonello, Giuseppe and Graziano. “I waited for them to grow up a bit. And when the youngest was six, I got myself a loom. I didn't want to neglect my family, but my mother helped me a lot. I saw that things were going well and slowly I took on other girls to work.” The lucky 'students' of this special 'master weaver' were provided with a veritable course that taught them how to guarantee the regularity and solidity of the weaves. The attention grew over time and the size of what she describes as her “saloncino” (little room) where she worked increased. It used to be a stable. “It was a room next to the house, where we used to keep the calves, because we also had a farm.”

Once the animals were moved elsewhere, “this space remained: the saloncino. But when the looms went from one to four, we expanded. Three of my children are engineers and they designed a two-story building, each around 5400 square feet, in the same yard as my workshop. At that point, I hired some girls and did a weaving course with them.”

There’s no fooling around with Mariantonia Urru. Enthusiasm is fine but you need technique, traditional technique and more innovative technique, because she is convinced that combining manual skills, mechanics and information technology enriches the final result. “Ours is still a small company” but of fine quality, with no fear of modernization: “15 people work there in the summer and we have 25 looms in all.” Alongside the manual looms, “where we take the stitches one by one with our fingers,” now jacquard looms have appeared, with touch screen panels. It serves to save time, but not only in reality. “Doing it this way means we have fireproof certification, because we use these accessories to furnish hotels,” she explains. But let's be clear, “the wool, however, is always Sardinian wool, only that it is worked in a simpler way.”  For Mariantonia, the raw material is of utmost importance.

Combining manual skills, mechanics and information technology enriches the final result.

“We have an expert who selects it at the sheep farm. We collect the wool from the shepherds and send it to Bergamo for carding, spinning and dyeing. Then it comes back to us in Samugheo, where we create blends. We also sell yarns in different parts of Italy, where there is still a weaving tradition.” “Getting older, I almost wanted to stop but my children wanted to keep going… and they won. All four of them formed a company. Of course, things are different now; then, I took care of the house, I had to buy the material, follow the girls. I made carpets, curtains, everything to do with furnishings. The inspiration came from traditional Sardinian designs but I always tried to change something, to add something of my own.”

Amazing hands

Now, the vision is broader still and the contamination of styles and creativity is welcome. The credit goes to her children, it must be said. “My children have created partnerships with various designers. The first, about fifteen years ago was Patricia Urquiola. We met; we had brought our traditional Sardinian designs, and she took inspiration from them, transforming them, combining the two processing techniques, pibiones and litzos, which were previously used separately, and also different designs, such as the Sardinian lapwing and a detail of a saddlebag and created new images.” The contemporary does not scare Mariantonia at all, “she likes these designers, modern things, working with them. Sometimes they are curious, they ask, they learn

The stimulus of the workshop in Samugheo to open up not just symbolically but also concretely to artists from all over the world comes from her son Giuseppe Demelas, who in 2013 transformed it into a company, supported by his mother and brothers. “I studied engineering but I have always had a passion for design and architecture. So it was a natural process: reinventing the past, inviting creative talent to come to us to study the techniques of craftsmanship and then offer their own interpretation.”

In summary: innovation through design in an artisan company. This year, it was the turn of architect Mario Cucinella, who after visiting this little village center of Sardinia, designed a collection of six carpets, illustrating Sardinia as seen through his eyes. This partnership led to the creations of Scivu, which is the name of a beautiful beach on the Costa Verde, and Ortigu, meaning 'cork' in Sardinian, two of the tapestries on display on the stand at the fair, which, at 2x3 meters, can decorate a whole wall. With the notoriety and sales abroad—the first market for Mariantonia is Australia, then the United States, England and Germany—her saloncino is still growing and soon a new laboratory of 10,000 square feet will be ready.

From being a resource, it has become a concern for many farmers

And the company's focus on sustainability is also intensifying with the arrival of a new yarn resulting “from a partnership with Giovanardi: Raytent, a ReMade in Italy certified acrylic, made with the scraps of awnings using a process that uses less water, fewer chemicals and reduced CO2 emissions. “We use it in products for outdoor use,” explains Giuseppe. And among other things, processing wool is already a good thing for the environment, because not everyone knows that “it is considered special waste under European legislation. And it is a problem for shepherds if they don’t manage to sell it.”

But do they ever have a product surplus? “It happens yes, because in recent years there has been a fall in the demand for raw wool from China and India,” with the fashion industry preferring more refined yarns that come from abroad. And, apart from the loss of income, if the shepherds have wool left over, they can't even burn it; they have to pay for its disposal.” In short, from being a resource, it has become a concern for many farmers. M/U, as a small company, so to speak, helps to preserve this completely natural, renewable raw material—sheep are sheared every year— that is also insulating, breathable and water-repellent: in 2021, Mariantonia purchased and processed 30 tons of exclusively Sardinian wool.

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