Italian wool - part of the fashion heritage Featured

Today, just as 150 years ago, companies from Biella and Borgosesia are an important part of Italy's fashion business

by 23 July 2012

In Biella (region of Piedmont, northern Italy), the 'smoking chimneys' quoted by poet Giosuè Carducci (rather like Blake and his 'satanic mills') mean wool. And big business. Biella accounts for 40% of quality fibre sales worldwide. Wool, cashmere, mohair and other prestige textiles are part of daily life in this city, along with nature reserves, mountain paths, and important fashion brands. Below, historic photo of the founder of Ermenegildo Zegna and the factory.

In the lovely setting of this part of Italy in the Alpine foothills, people have been spinning yarn from the time of the Ancient Romans. In the late 19th-early 20th centuries, there were about fifty textile factories in operation. Today, ten are still operating large-scale, above all in the Vallestrona and Valsessera valleys. They are important examples of industrial archaeology, built on fast-flowing torrents that provided the necessary power for the looms.

You can get a glimpse of this world by following a popular route, the so-called 'Strada della lana,' the Wool Route, between Biella and Borgosesia. Here there are many factories that have played an important role in Italy's industrial history, such as the ancient wool factory Piacenza (still in operation), Filatura Bellia di Pianezze, the group of textile manufacturers Lanifici Bertotto di Romanina, the factory Fabbrica della Ruota di Vallefredda, the 19th century factory Lanificio di Pray, and Manifattura Lane di Borgosesia. Many other textile factories have been converted for new roles, such as the Trombetta works just outside Biella, converted into a contemporary art centre by artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, and the Pria factory, a 19th-century factory dramatically sited sheer above the river Cervo, a symbol of changing tastes in fashion from the late 18th century up until today. The Maurizio Sella wool factory hosts the like-named foundation.

A branch of the Wool Route leads to Trivero, where the Zegna family have been manufacturing "the finest textiles in the world" (as the company's founder said) for four generations and over a century. Today, quality is identified with social responsibility as well as with products, and in the case of Zegna, the group's relationship with the local community and environment is particularly intense. Visitors can take the 'Panoramica Zegna,' a 14-kilometre road that links Trivero to Bielmonte, a delightful location in the hills. Casa Zegna is a permanent exhibition that illustrates the family's history. The Oasi Zegna is an area of 100 square kilometres, instituted in 1993 in order to protect an uncontaminated area of the Biella mountains.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the winter 2012-2013 collection by Ermenegildo Zegna features the colours of timber-brown, hazel-brown, ochre, blue and snow-white, all colours that hallmark the beautiful Oasi Zegna, in a series of trench-look outer garments, a refreshingly informal group of coats, corduroy capes, jackets, and rough-hemmed shearlings. The Spazzolino is a highlight, a valuable Alpaca fabric, first presented in the 1970s and now used for new garment cuts, with new techniques.

Another important player on the local industrial scene, and, like Pria, built on the river Cervo, is the wool mill owned by Fratelli Cerruti. The family, which began as wool merchants, bought it in the 19th century. The 'Cerruti area' includes a historic central building, dating back to the mid-18th century, and another similar structure built later. From 1951, when Nino Cerruti inherited the business, the factory has been making menswear and womenswear, reaching over 4,500 different garment designs per season. The brand introduced some important new concepts, such as the deconstructed jacket. In the mid-1960s, they also employed a promising new designer, one Giorgio Armani, to design their Hitman line!

To return to the present day, the winter 2012-13 collection includes references to army parade uniforms, utilizing suggestions from the brand's historic archives. These include the urban-sportswear look that was actually a hallmark of products by Lanificio Fratelli Cerruti in its early years, between 1920 and 1940. The cashmere jacket, a product made in cooperation with Gold Bunny, is an exceptional piece, made in Inner Mongolia Cashmere, a fibre that is prized for its length, softness and fineness. All this goes to show that in Biella and environs, wool is an ongoing success story.

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