Mistress of the 1,000 threads and keys

Martina Marcona

Actually, Martina Marcona wanted to study piano at the conservatory. But homesickness made her return to Val Müstair, where she learned the art of hand weaving in one of the last professional weaving workshops in Switzerland - the Tessanda. Nevertheless, she has never given up her passion for music: she is a member of the rock band «Diabolics» and organist in church.
Watch Martina Marcona – Herrin der 1000 Fäden und Tasten on YouTube.

Do not lose the thread

«Setting up the loom is my favourite thing to do. I feel like the master of 1,000 threads,» says Martina Marcona proudly. Up to 2,500 threads have to be tucked, pulled in and knotted. She can't afford to make any mistakes, because the basis for the handmade products of Tessanda is laid during the setting-up process. From tea towels and pashminas to sports bags, carpets and deck-chair coverings, there is everything. Of course, individual one-offs are also possible.

Martina beim Zetteln

Shot after shot of fabric enjoyment

Clattering and clacking resounds through the old weaving rooms: it is the sound that arises when the weavers shoot their «Schiffli» with the different threads and colours through the loom. By pressing up to twelve steps with their feet, the shafts rise and fall and the desired pattern emerges. In recent months, Martina Marcona and her colleagues have managed to give their traditional products a modern touch with new patterns and colours as well as personalised labels. It goes without saying that you can order online. A visit to Tessanda in Sta. Maria is nevertheless worthwhile.

Stoffe der Tessanda Val Müstair.

Dream job hand weaver?

But becoming a hand weaver was by no means the original plan: after a year at the conservatory in Winterthur, homesickness drew the young woman from Münstertal back to Val Müstair. Like other women in her family, Martina Marcona then trained as a hand weaver in Tessanda in the 1980s. Something she does not regret in retrospect, because: «Val Müstair with its impressive mountains, its culture, language and people is the epitome of home for me.»

Mistress of the 1,000 keys

Martina Marcona proves that she is not put off by the sheer number of keys on an organ, as a temporary organist in church. But she is really in her musical element when she plays Rhaeto-Romanic rock songs on the electric piano with the band «Diabolics». For over 20 years, the band has been like her second family. And like real rockers, they also play without notes. Her songs emerge in a creative process: «Almost like when I try out and develop new fabric patterns.»

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More about the hand weaver Martina Marcona

Weaving in the blood

Martina Marcona's mother, sister and other family members have already learned the recognised profession of weaver in the more than 90-year history of the Tessanda hand weaving mill in Sta. Maria. Especially in earlier times, the Tessanda was an important institution that enabled the women of the valley to learn a trade and thus earn an income.

Martina Marcona, mother of two grown-up sons, considers herself lucky to have learned this craft. In the years when she was mainly taking care of her family, she even had a loom at home, that's how much she likes her job. Now that the children have left home, she is back at her workplace in Tessanda.

Not for the faint hearted

«I like setting up the loom best of all. I feel like the mistress of 1,000 threads,» says the Münstertal native proudly. Because up to 2,500 threads first have to be wound into a warp on the beaming beam, then properly drawn in on the loom and finally the shafts knotted with the treadles. This is a job that requires a steady hand and the utmost concentration and can sometimes take several days. She must not allow herself any mistakes. The flaws in the pattern would run through the entire fabric.

What also fascinates Martina Marcona: Depending on which threads are later used in weaving and which steps are operated, completely different patterns and fabrics are created on one and the same loom with the same set-up. «My work is much more creative than you would think at first glance.» Martina Marcona prefers to weave with pure linen, as this requires a great deal of sensitivity.

Millimetre work  

Once the loom is set up, it's time to start weaving. The Tessanda employees routinely shoot their «Schiffli» with the different colours between the threads through the loom. At the same time, they use their feet to operate the up to twelve treadles that raise and lower the shafts with the warp threads to create the desired pattern. The loud clattering and clacking sound of this can be heard throughout the house - the reason why the women wear hearing protection during their work.

And so, millimetre by millimetre, fabrics are woven for the versatile products of the manufactory: From tea towels to sports bags and pashminas to carpets and deck chair coverings. In order to defy the competition from mass production, the weavers of Tessanda have recently reinvented themselves, especially in terms of colours and patterns, thus giving their products a modern touch despite their attachment to tradition. «We must not stand still and must always come up with something new». It goes without saying that the handmade traditional products can also be bought online.

Piano studies with side effects  

But becoming a hand weaver was by no means her dream job. On the contrary: already at a young age, her parents made it possible for Martina Marcona to start studying at the conservatory in Winterthur. And although playing the piano was and is her great passion, homesickness for her beloved Val Müstair drew her back home after a year in the city.

«The people in our valley, our Romansh dialect, the 'Jauer', our living culture and the archaic mountain world were simply too much for me.» On a cosy bench above her house, Martina Marcona lets her thoughts run free after her work is done. Looking out over her hometown of Valchava, she really feels at home.

Mistress of the 1,000 keys

Music still plays an important role in Martina Marcona's life. More by chance than anything else, she found herself working as a substitute organist at the Reformed Church in the valley at a young age. Since then, once a month, she has provided the musical accompaniment to Sunday services, proving that she is not intimidated by the sheer number of keys and pipes on an organ. «But I am not a professional organist,» she emphasises modestly.

Martina Marcona's second musical engagement is also due to chance: «My brother called me 23 years ago and asked me if I would like to found the rock band «Diabolics» with him and some friends.» Because the Münstertal native is completely in her element at the piano.

A rock song is «woven»

Since then, the five-piece band, which mainly creates and plays rock songs in Rhaeto-Romanic, has increasingly become a second family. Several times a year they perform at open airs or other events in and outside Val Müstair and proudly show a modern yet rooted side of their homeland.  

Like real rockers, the «Diabolics» also play without sheet music. At the beginning, it was quite a change for Martina Marcona, who came from classical music and suddenly immersed herself in the world of rock: «When Ivan has a new idea for a song text, the melody comes along like in a brainstorming session. We play on it, discuss, try things out and at some point we feel: That's it! A creative process - just like when we develop new fabrics and patterns,» she enthuses and her eyes light up. With a twinkle in her eye, she adds: «In the last few years, it's always gone a little more in the direction of rock ballads. Maybe that's because of age...».

Martina Marcona